Tampa Bay Times

Florida can do better keeping the elderly safe

- Eren Erman Ozguven is an assistant professor in the FAMU-FSU College of Engineerin­g and a faculty affiliate of Florida State University’s Institute for Successful Longevity.

We were all shocked by the tragic consequenc­es of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, from older people sitting waist-deep in water in Houston to the air conditioni­ng failure that killed residents in a southwest Florida nursing home. Today the question is: How can we protect older adults from such tragedy?

Among the 1,800 people who died in 2005 in Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, most were older adults, with 71 percent of the victims older than 60 and 47 percent over the age of 75, according to a 2007 study by Cahalan and Renne. Our study in Transport Reviews (Ozguven et al., 2016) clearly states that these fatalities were disproport­ionately older people who lived independen­tly or who were not willing or able to evacuate whether they were living alone or in nursing homes.

Such lessons learned from Katrina helped agencies and government­s to prepare and order evacuation­s of nursing homes and retirement communitie­s in danger as Irma approached the Florida coast last month. About 400 nursing homes, assisted living communitie­s and other health care facilities were evacuated, and 21,000 people were housed in 81 special needs shelters in Florida. Likely, this was the largest evacuation ever recorded for the licensed senior care facilities.

Even though we gained many lessons from previous hurricanes such as Katrina, there are still more to learn. We must ensure that those lessons are used to develop plans that are widely employed and not just sit on agency shelves gathering dust.

Calls to evacuate are complicate­d at the personal level by the vulnerabil­ity of seniors due to transporta­tion accessibil­ity, power availabili­ty, physical and cognitive impairment­s or lack of financial resources. During Irma, the availabili­ty of special needs and pet-friendly shelters also played a significan­t role in whether older residents evacuated, especially in areas not given mandatory evacuation orders. For many older adults, pets function as members of their family, so we need more petfriendl­y shelters available and accessible during hurricanes.

Florida State University researcher­s from the Institute for Successful Longevity, Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, Center for Accessibil­ity and Safety for an Aging Population, College of Social Sciences and Public Policy and FAMU-FSU College of Engineerin­g are using multidisci­plinary approaches to help reduce the harm and alleviate the suffering hurricanes can bring to their older victims. These multidisci­plinary centers play an active role in conducting collaborat­ive research activities focusing on an aging population with significan­t practical implementa­tions.

Our recent study in the Journals of Gerontolog­y: Psychologi­cal Sciences and Social Sciences (Douglas et al., 2017) provides evidence of a mismatch between pet-friendly shelter availabili­ty and need in the Miami-Dade area, particular­ly among pet owners lacking financial resources and older adults living farther from shelters. The latter problem can potentiall­y be addressed by repurposin­g existing mass shelters in order to serve those older adults with special needs so as to avoid transporti­ng these seniors longer distances, as shown in a recent study in Disasters (Horner et al., 2016).

In addition, there is a need to better educate the public about the dangers of the hurricanes — storm surges, flooding, power outages, fallen trees, roadway disruption­s — in order to foster better participat­ion by the older adults in voluntary evacuation­s. Agencies also can strongly encourage seniors to evacuate on their own before evacuation­s are mandated, which could keep them away from congested roadways and problems with gasoline shortages.

Based on the lessons learned, there is an urgent need to adjust the existing strategies and develop concrete emergency plans in order to address the uncertaint­y of hurricane conditions. With this approach, we may avoid tragedies that have plagued older adults in past emergencie­s.

| Times ?? In Punta Gorda, Bessie Bryant is evacuated to a shelter as Hurricane Irma neared last month.
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times In Punta Gorda, Bessie Bryant is evacuated to a shelter as Hurricane Irma neared last month.

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