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Joe Henderson: Florida must get elderly care right

in Apolitical/Top Headlines by

Of all the heartbreak and damage wrought by Hurricane Irma, nothing is worse than the deaths of eight elderly residents, aged 71 to 99, at a Hollywood Hills rehabilitation center.

It’s an outrage. It’s horrifying. It left people sputtering with anger and officials on the trail to find answers.

The facility lost power during the storm and backup systems failed. That left residents to swelter with no air conditioning, and now multiple investigations are under way, although other possible causes of death are being considered, including carbon monoxide poisoning. If there was negligence, criminal charges may follow.

My goodness, this rehab center was located across the street from a hospital emergency room. Did no one think to run over there and say, “Hey, we have a problem.”

The Florida Health Care Association, which advocates for elderly in the state, called it “a profound tragedy within the larger tragedy of Hurricane Irma.”

That about sums it up, and there is something potentially more disturbing. Will we find stories of neglect at other facilities? The FHCA said there are nearly 700 senior homes in the state, and as of Wednesday about 150 didn’t have power.

Hurricane Irma was a monster and everyone in the state, especially in south Florida, knew to expect havoc. But there were also several days to prepare, and the loss of power is one of the first things to happen with a hurricane.

The rehab center’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, told the Miami Herald facility officials are fully cooperating with authorities.

He added that the staff “diligently prepared for the impact of Hurricane Irma. We took part in emergency management preparedness calls with local and state emergency officials, other nursing homes and health regulators.”

If that is so, then why did no one there think to alert someone, anyone, that a portable cooling unit at the facility had failed?

Mara K. Gambineri, spokeswoman for the state health department, told the Herald, “At no time did the facility report that conditions had become dangerous or that the health and safety of their patients was at risk.”

Could no one see this coming? This facility recently received a “much below average” rating from a state agency.

Seniors make up nearly one in five of the state’s 20 million residents. By 2040, officials estimate the state will have more than 6 million senior citizens. Many of them will eventually need specialized care.

Even today, many seniors need help with basics like bathing, when to take their medications, or just getting out of bed. They require elevated care for diseases like Alzheimer’s, senior dementia, or Parkinson’s. Their diets have to be watched and managed.

They are not always the most cooperative patients.

It’s expensive, too. reported the median national cost of a one-bedroom assisted living facility is more than $3,600 a month. Many places cost a lot more than that, and as rates continue to rise, some seniors are forced to find other places to live.

As events in Hollywood Hills proved, tragedy can result when things go wrong.

So, yes, there must be a thorough investigation. If there was criminal negligence, people should go to jail. Don’t stop there, though. Florida is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable citizens.

Every senior facility should be under renewed scrutiny.

They have to get this right.

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Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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