Florida Department of Elder Affairs
The sad death earlier this month of 87-year-old Audrey Davis of Ocean Park is generating discussion about how we deal with a variety of issues on this remote coast — everything from dementia care to how a cash-strapped rural county can best stretch its resources to help all vulnerable residents.
The nation’s growing population of older people is often in the news. Nationwide, an estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers retire every day. Although many have years of good life ahead, there’s no getting around the fact that eventually we all need increasing level of assistance. Since different generations of families often now live far apart, there is more need for locally provided aid, especially in relatively isolated areas like ours.
Physical isolation is a fact of life here. The percentage of Pacific County people living alone increased from 27.2 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2010, when the last formal census was conducted. Pacific County is one of only six of Washington’s 39 counties with a living-alone percentage above 30. Nearly one-quarter of us were 65 or older in 2010. The county ranked third among the state’s 39 counties in terms of the percentage of residents 65 and above. Between 2000 and 2010, the county experienced a 72 percent increase in the number of senior citizens living alone. There were 3,132 one-person households in the county in 2010, of whom 1,650 were women age 65 and older and 591 were men 65 and older. In comparison, in 2000 there were 2,680 one-person households — 1,304 were 65-plus.
There’s no reason to think much has changed with these trends in the years since 2010.
Specifically thinking of Audrey’s situation, she was fortunate in having a robust and caring group of friends. This undoubtedly helped her remain independent at an age when others might have been forced to move in with family or seek a professional-care setting. Neither option is easy. What used to be called “old folks homes” are few and far between, victims of a changing labor market, more stringent regulations and other factors. At the same time, a lot of seniors are understandably reluctant to leave familiar and well-loved settings. Few want institutional care or to inconvenience family members.
Places including ours have to do an ever-better job of creating and supporting informal networks of people to watch out for one another. Faced with astronomical increases in elder-care costs, governments at every level must support such hometown efforts by adding visiting nurses, coordinators, mentors and trainers. Ensuring that most seniors remain safe and contented in their own homes will be expensive, but might be only a small fraction of what institutional care could total.
With 20-20 hindsight, it seems Audrey had reached a point of dementia necessitating closer monitoring. We all need more education in recognizing these signs, along with decent options for who to turn to when we’re worried about something.
Our story last week explored the strengths and weaknesses of “Silver Alert” systems. They are issued for people who are older than 60, suffering from dementia, and known to be driving. When a vulnerable adult goes missing, local police can choose to alert State Patrol. Alerts can then be shared between law enforcement agencies, the media and citizens who have signed up for notifications.
In Audrey’s case, however, a Silver Alert might not have helped. Its main tools — illuminated signs on highway overpasses and text messages to cellphones — aren’t adapted to sparsely populated areas. At best, perhaps issuing an alert would have inspired more intense on-the-ground efforts to circle out from her home to make certain she hadn’t run off the highway or, as was the case, become lost on a forest road.
Long inactive, a volunteer search and rescue group might be key in some future local lost-person case. It’s possible to imagine a phone-tree system that would essentially create a posse to fan out and walk every trail and road looking for clues to the missing person.
Planning and prevention
As our story reported, planning and coordination in the early stages can prevent tragedy later on. Relatives should make sure friends, neighbors and church members know whom to contact in an emergency involving a person whose memory is lapsing. It’s also helpful to have people check in on a consistent, predictable schedule.
ID bracelets and GPS navigation devices for affected people who are still driving can make relocating and identifying them much more likely.
As a society, we must not try to pretend these issues won’t become more common in the years just ahead. Ours is a place with a proud tradition of self-help, but that doesn’t mean we should allow anyone to be forgotten or go without care they obviously need.