“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”  Mahatma Ghandi

Like many of you, I was left without words learning about the death of eight helpless nursing home residents in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma.  It was a tragic and sad event.  It is a reminder of the vulnerability of long-term care residents and older adults needing care and services in their own homes.  This tragic situation provides a hard lesson about what it means to be prepared for an emergency, and the need to monitor the adequacy of those plans.

However, I believe it provides an even greater lesson for all of us.  We know that elders are particularly susceptible to dehydration and heat, and therefore vulnerable in times of natural disaster like Hurricane Irma.  Therefore, this tragic situation was foreseeable.  Florida, federal, and local officials are investigating this terrible tragedy.  The Florida nursing home disaster could have happened almost anywhere.

There has or will be lawsuits filed, with government officials blaming the nursing home and nursing home officials stating they attempted to ask government officials and the power company for help.  Regardless, I believe one thing is clear – everyone failed these vulnerable nursing home residents.

We as a society have a responsibility to take care of our most vulnerable citizens.  Unfortunately, after Hurricane Irma, society failed the nursing home residents.  We must stand true to the above words by Mahatma Ghandi and do better to protect the most vulnerable.

We currently employ as part of our elder care law team, five geriatric social workers.  Our goal is to enhance the lives of seniors we represent and engage in health care advocacy for our clients in any type of housing setting.  We alone cannot prevent a tragedy like what occurred in Florida from happening again.  However, we have to start somewhere.

In April and October 2018, our elder care law office will be hosting full day elder care symposiums in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania for elder care professionals.  The keynote speaker for both symposiums will be Eloy van Hal, a co-founder of the Dementia Village in the Netherlands.  Mr. van Hal’s topic will be Dealing with Dementia: Can the Dementia Village Model work in the U.S.?  The Dementia Village concept is based upon improving the quality of life for elderly people with an advanced stage of dementia by de-institutionalizing, normalizing, and challenging and improving existing models and regulations.  In other words, prioritizing the needs of seniors and those with disabilities a high priority.

There is an urgent need to reassess standards and procedures for both prevention and response to emergencies.  The lesson learned from the tragedy in Florida should not be that one nursing home is held to account for failing to protect its residents, or that one state takes steps to ensure that longstanding, basic resident protections are implemented for that state’s nursing home residents.  There is an even greater urgent need to reassess our country’s priorities, and chart a positive course for taking care of our seniors and those with disabilities over the next many years.

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