Charlotte, Florida - Florida may have the nation’s highest percentage of older residents, but a national study has found the state’s not doing a good enough job of taking care of them.
It ranks below average in terms of elder abuse and neglect protections and dead last nationally when it comes to resources, such as funding for long-term care ombudsmen and eldercare organizations and services, according to WalletHub.
A separate recent canvass of Florida residents revealed that concerns regarding elder care and nursing home costs are also at an all-time-high, with almost three in four saying they’re "somewhat concerned" or "very concerned" in a USF- Nielsen Sunshine State Survey. According to the research, residents are worried about and aware of the same problems highlighted by WalletHub -- the state is not putting enough money into these senior services, there is not enough funding for key help such as caregivers, and the amount of services are lacking despite such a large 65-plus community.
Nursing home emergencies and deaths during power outages in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma recently highlighted significant flaws in elder care protocols and regulations.
Reacting to the crisis, during which Gov. Rick Scott was accused of not following up on calls for help, the state put in an emergency generator rule requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have a working generator and 96 hours of fuel.
That was too late for at least a dozen residents who died in sweltering conditions at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which was located adjacent to a medical center. But legislators say they’re poised to address the challenges in the industry.
"Apparently not everyone has common sense to call 911 in an emergency and evacuate people to the hospital across the street," state Rep. Katie Edwards said. "They have to get their act together, they have to have a plan, and damn it, it’s ridiculous that we have to mandate that people have to do that."
During the ongoing legislative session, Edwards and others are targeting Florida’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, which records show has regularly turned up fewer complaints each year under Gov. Scott for the state’s 3,772 registered nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
The elder care issue, as USF- Nielsen highlighted, is of high interest in a state where Pew Research Center found that "53 of 67 counties have an above-average share of people 65 and older." Charlotte has the second-largest percentage and Sarasota fourth in the U.S., among counties of more than 25,000 residents, according to a Pew analysis of 2014 Census data.
The concern is unless more action is taken to prevent further abuse, the problem will grow as Florida becomes an increasingly aging state. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the national population of senior citizens is expected to double by 2050, from 43.1 million to 83.7 million.
Already, nearly 96 percent of elder abuse instances go unreported or unresolved, according to WalletHub.
That’s why increasing public awareness and training are the two most important factors of preventing and addressing neglect or worse, said BeLinda AmanKwaa, Adult Protective Operations Program Administrator for the state Department of Children and Families in Charlotte County, North Port and other nearby communities.
State records obtained by the Sun show that of Florida’s 34,792 cases in 2017, only 12 percent were verified. Of 67 counties, Sarasota and Charlotte ranked 13th and 23rd, respectively, in the number of complaints.
Dade County led the state in total numbers but fares better than Charlotte and Sarasota counties when it comes to the rate, according to a Sun analysis of the data using U.S. Census numbers. Dade had one complaint for every 158 residents who are 65 or over; both Charlotte and Sarasota have one for every 153.
While the lack of verification of complaints could partially be the result of no abuse actually occurring in a case, many are dismissed because evidence is sparse or does not meet certain standards, AmanKwaa said.
The standard: "Abuse means any willful act or threatened act by a relative, caregiver, or household member, which causes or is likely to cause significant impairment to a vulnerable adult’s physical, mental, or emotional health. Abuse includes acts and omissions," AmanKwaa said.
Victims are not always able to speak out or get necessary help for themselves, making a support system, reliable witnesses or trustworthy homes and facilities key in obtaining justice, she said.
Likewise, the stigma surrounding abuse in this plays a concerning role on whether or not a case is reported, according to AmanKwaa. Bringing light to such a situation can often make the victim feel even more vulnerable, potentially dissuading affected individuals from coming forward. Others, as studies have shown, keep quiet "to maintain their independent living arrangement," said Thomas G. Blomberg, Florida State Professor of Criminology and the university’s Executive Director of the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research.
"They do not want to move in with their children or to be moved to assisted living facilities," said Blomberg, who has studied elder abuse. "As a result, elders often suffer from abuse and financial exploitation in silence, for fear that their "well-meaning" children, if they are aware of the abuse, will take away their independent living arrangement. Families need to be open with elders and supportive of their wishes -- letting them know that as long as humanly possible, they will live as they choose and are able."
Florida consent laws state that anyone of sound mind has the right to refuse services and interventions; therefore, even outside witnesses to neglect or abuse are not always enough to make a case if the victim themselves do not want to prosecute.
"A vulnerable adult who has the mental capacity to consent may opt to refuse all services," said AmanKwaa. Meaning that withheld treatments or under-medication -- which could look like signs of neglect to a third-party -- could actually be what the patient is requesting.
While legislators consider additional statutes, one current law couldn’t be more clear:
"Florida law requires the reporting of known or suspected abuse, neglect, exploitation or self-neglect of vulnerable adults (elderly or disabled)," AmanKwaa said.
Like the TSA and Homeland Security campaigns, or even on Buzzfeed, if you see something, chances are you should say something.
Sun-Sentinel reporter Dan Sweeney and former WalletHub writer Richie Bernardo supplemented this report.
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