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The swath of Hurricane Irma was so wide that while the storm did not directly hit South Florida, where I live, its effects were devastating. Once again, South Florida made national and international news. Not for all the good we do, but for the bad. This time, it was really bad.

            Eight residents of a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida died after power went out due to the storm. The story of how a heroic nurse at the hospital across the street suspected a major problem and probably saved lives with her quick thinking is widespread.

            Now, the blame game begins.

            According to an article in the South Florida SunSentinel, the nursing home says it called Florida Power & Light (FPL) several times to report the outage. They also reported problems to Governor Scott’s office and left messages on the governor’s cell phone, a number he had given out at a press conference. The nursing home says it contacted several state “alphabet soup” agencies, such as FDOT, SERT and AHCA*. The governor’s office released a statement saying that the facility never said the conditions were dire and patients were at risk. Oh, and the governor’s office referred each call to AHCA and FDOH*. There are probably more agencies with fancy titles and acronyms that were contacted, including ESQs who are now representing the families of the victims.

            That’s the blame at the top. Let’s look at the trickle down effect.

            Many blame the nursing home owner, administration and staff, including the families of the victims. This is confirmed based on the legal actions that have already begun. The alphabet agencies also blame the facility, as does Governor Scott. Certainly, the public blames the facility too.

            The public also appears to blame the families of the victims and are asking, what did they think was going to happen when they chose to leave their octogenarian parents in a nursing home during a major storm when there is a power outage for several days?

            The families’ reasonable responses? We expected the trusted facility to care for our family members. And, don’t cast stones.

            Only one week after Hurricane Irma smashed through South Florida and cut power to almost two million homes and businesses (as I write this FPL states power has been restored to over 70% of their customers), when the tragedy at the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center (HHRC) continues to make news, and the blame game begins, one thing must be made clear: we are all responsible.

            Our society is aging. That’s not news. Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, have reshaped America’s population as birth rates post-World War II spiked. Baby Boomers, myself included, are now between fifty-two and seventy-one years old. There are over forty-six million people in America who are sixty-five years or older. The average life span is seventy-nine years old, and more people are living to 100. There are more women than men living into their older years. Many live alone. Many have limited financial and familial support. Many cannot care for themselves, and suffer physical, emotional and mental illnesses. Alzheimer’s Disease is on the rise.

As our older community is living longer, we are charged with caring for them. More and more are living with their parents, or one parent, as I do. For those who do not have the honor of doing that, the elderly are living alone, or placed in facilities like HHRC. Many are forgotten, dismissed, and left in the care of strangers. Some receive excellent care. But to me, it all comes down to one thing: respect for our elderly.

            Who are our older people?

            They were born before 1947 and are labeled as follows:

    G.I. Generation: Born between approximately 1901 and 1924. Grew up during the Great Depression. Survivors of World War II.

    Silent Generation: Born from about 1925 to 1946. Includes those who experienced World War II. Most fought in the Korean War, and many in the Vietnam War.

    Our older generation experienced black outs and brown outs and bombing drills. They lived through bread lines, shortages of jobs, and desperate financial times during the Depression. They were alive when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Years later, they thought the world was going to end during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They remember the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, gas lines and 9/11. They shaped America by moving out of cities and into suburbs. They are of all nationalities, religions and ethnicities. They are our parents, our aunts and uncles, our friends, our neighbors. They were our doctors and nurses, lawyers and mechanics, the local clerk at a favorite market, a waitress at a frequented restaurant, our bosses and co-workers. 

            They never thought they’d get older either and require the help of others to accomplish daily tasks such as eating, bathing, and walking. 

            I understand the need to punish and hold accountable those responsible for the deaths of the eight victims at HHRC. I agree with that need, too. Accountability is imperative to correct the wrongs so they never happen again. Punitive action is also necessary for the negligent care of the victims.

    The HHRC 8 will never be returned to their families. They didn’t choose to grow old in a way that required others to care for them. They certainly didn’t deserve to die in a pressure cooker environment, one charged with protecting them from harm.

            The blame game is just beginning but the reality is that we are all responsible. Until our elderly are treated with respect and not as burdens, horrific incidences like what happened to the HHRC 8 will continue.

            Treating the elderly with respect begins with each of us as individuals. Over time, by regarding the elderly with the reverence they deserve, the trickle up effect will begin. Once every elderly person is treated with respect, what happened at HHRC will never happen again and there will be no need for blame.

Joanne Lewis Blog

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*FDOT: Florida Department of Transportation: Emergency Management, which is an intricate part of SERT: State Emergency Response Team.

AHCA: Florida Agency for Health Care Administration

FDOH: Florida Department of Health