Long a Refuge for the Elderly, Florida is Now a Place of Danger

Photo

A man looked out his window in Miami Beach, Fla. The large population of older residents presents a challenge for officials ahead of Hurricane Irma.

Credit
Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

With all the challenges and complications as one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded bears down on South Florida, there is also this: One in five residents here is over the age of 65, a percentage greater than any other state.


In the three counties that appear most likely to bear the brunt of Hurricane Irma — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — roughly a half-million residents are over the age of 75.

They range from active residents living in lush retirement communities to physically and mentally impaired people living in assisted living units or nursing homes, but as previous storms like Katrina, Sandy and Harvey have demonstrated, they are among the most at risk. The sheer numbers and vexing variety of the elderly population poses enormous problems as officials must assess risk and allocate resources, both before and after the storm.

Because so many older people move to Florida later in life, they often do not have the family and neighborhood connections that would provide support in an emergency.

“We call this group elder orphans,” said Jeff Johnson, the state director for the AARP. “Many of them are probably in a condition that is normally manageable, but if left without power or stranded for days, away from support and care, when the state doesn’t know who they are or what they might need, that is the worry.”

Mr. Johnson said that state and local officials had worked hard not to repeat the mistakes of storms past, and advocates for the elderly “have pretty high hopes that the state and local authorities are attentive to people in those sorts of institutional settings.”

Since the end of the Second World War, retirees have been lured to Florida’s sunny shores by affordable housing, effective marketing and an idea of the good life. They first settled in and around Miami and St. Petersburg but the 1960s saw the rise of gated communities across the state.

During normal times, many of them would be fine on their own, perhaps taking offense at any suggestion otherwise. After Irma makes landfall, times will likely be anything but normal.

The concerns range from caring for the sick and infirm to persuading people reluctant to leave their homes that it is wise to do so.

“You saw the picture of the lady knitting with the water up to her waist,’’ said Mike Graham, 71, referring to the now infamous photo taken at the La Vita Bella assisted-living center in Dickinson, Tex. in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

“It is sort of like: We have been through it and this is what it is,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Graham was living in Miami during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and rode that storm out. Since then, he has moved to the beach and lives in a high rise. He is leaving but he is not going far, heading downtown to his brother’s house.

“It survived Andrew,” he said.

A retired general surgeon, he is not blasé about the risks, but realistic about the options.

His mother, he said, is 94 years old and lives in an assisted living facility in Coral Gables.

Since he did not expect flooding to be a problem, there was not much to be done other than to make sure she had what she needed.

Photo

A woman shopped for groceries at a supermarket in Miami Beach, Fla.

Credit
Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

It remains to be seen how the health care system will handle the increased demands placed on it by evacuations of the elderly and if they can get assistance to the most in need after the storm.

When Hurricane Andrew swept across the state in 1992, the health care system was overwhelmed by the evacuation of facilities and the relocation of elderly patients.

The legal requirements to take care of special needs individuals at home and in medical facilities have since been made more stringent, but there are also many people who live outside of official oversight.

Newsletter Sign Up

Continue reading the main story

Yolanda Schon, the administrator for a private care provider called Senior Oversight, said that most of their clients were planning on hunkering down — including three on Miami Beach.

“They don’t want to leave their houses,” she said. Fortunately, she said, they have caregivers who have said they would stay with the clients throughout the storm.

There are several reasons people choose to stay, including the risks of trying to get to a shelter.

“We are worried, but the people that are going said they will stay with them, and they have been with us for a long time,” Ms. Schon said.

Jacob Schreiber, the chief executive of Goodman Jewish Family Services of Broward County, said the people who normally care for their clients also have to be concerned about their own families.

His organization provides care for some 900 elderly men and women, most of them Holocaust survivors.

He said their response to the impending storm has been “all over the map.”

Some have evacuated. Others have brought in family to help. And some are determined to ride it out alone. Not many, however, have chosen to go to shelters.

“This is the time when families really have to rally each other,” he said.

At Citrus Park, a mobile home community in Bonita Springs, on the Gulf Coast north of Naples, most of the residents who stay all year round had left as of Thursday afternoon.

Only two couples remained on Flowerstone Court, a cul-de-sac lined with tidy double-wide homes with trimmed shrubs and palm trees out front and a car or two — and a golf cart — in the car port. Others on the block were Georgia-bound, forming a caravan north up Interstate 75.

Ralph and Lonna Gruver were beginning to load up their cars with important papers and artwork. Mr. Monet, their bichon frisé, would come with them, of course, but they were leaving most everything else behind, including the wall clock in the living room that chimes to “Unchained Melody,” the Righteous Brothers’ 1960s hit.

The Gruvers had not decided whether to head toward Georgia or stay with their neighbors. Friends in another part of Citrus Park who owned a house — sturdier than a mobile home — and who only come for the winter season had offered it as a place to ride out the storm.

That neighborliness is what Ralph Gruver, a retired painting contractor from Illinois, likes about what everyone calls “the park,” home to about 3,500 people, almost all retirees, in the winter and about tenth that many in the summer.

“There’s really no difference between people who have more and those who have less,” Mr. Gruver said. “As I like to say, we all live in a tin box.”

Jane Smith contributed reporting from West Palm Beach


Continue reading the main story


Do you have an unusual story to tell? E-mail stories@tutuz.com