Orlando developing plan for age-friendly living

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

After two years of assessing how to make Orlando a place its older residents can continue to call home, city staff will present for acceptance its findings to the council Sept. 12.

Its Livable Orlando Age‐Friendly Action Plan focuses on how to allow older residents to feel as comfortable and connected in Orlando as younger residents do, paying attention to areas such as housing, health, mobility and social interactions. It intersects many of the city’s other initiatives such as the Future-Ready initiative.

The effort is tied to the city joining the AARP Network of Age‐Friendly States and Communities in 2019. The action plan phase is completed when it is sent to the World Health Organization.

The plan is created to directly benefit the city’s older residents. There are 28 designated senior living facilities, according to the Fire Safety Management Division of the Orlando Fire Department, and roughly 10% of its residents are 65 years and older, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

On Aug. 15, the council heard about the plan’s eight areas of focus: Outdoor Spaces & Buildings, Housing, Transportation/Mobility, Civic Participation & Employment, Respect & Social Inclusion, Social Participation, Community Support & Health Systems, and Communications & Information.

AC outage underscored concerns

A recent incident at an Orlando senior tower illuminated the need for the age-friendly plan. A bearing in the central air conditioning system broke in one of the two 15-story towers at Kinneret Apartments, a 380-unit, income-eligible complex for residents 62 and older with mobility issues, its website says. The apartments, developed in 1968 and 1972, are listed for sale.

More than 160 senior apartments at the 515 Delaney Ave. location were without air for five days, during some of the hottest days of summer.

Julie Stewart, a resident, recalled making the call to her daughter to pick her up from her Kinneret apartment in downtown Orlando. The air conditioner had broken before but not for days on end, Stewart said.

The outage began on July 28. Stewart left on July 30 and returned to a working air conditioning system Aug. 3. Residents who remained in the building were given fans to use in their apartments. She and other residents said they received no updates from Kinneret about the outage or what to do if it happened again.

It wasn’t the first time that the residents of Kinneret went days without electricity and air conditioning. Hurricane Irma hit Florida Sept. 10, 2017 and knocked out service, leaving residents low on supplies and some unable to leave due to inoperable elevators.

Kinneret Apartments President Rhonda Pearlman said she participated in early stage development of the age-friendly plans and looks forward to the update.

She said the building’s emergency plan includes moving vulnerable seniors at the complex’s expense when necessary. During the recent air conditioning outage, she said nearby businesses brought food and water once the word got out.

“We had maintenance staff monitoring the apartments all weekend and the highest reported temperature was 78 degrees,” Pearlman said.

Louis Bailey, manager of Membership and Organizing at We Act, an environmental justice organization based in Harlem, New York, said he understands that some of what happened at Kinneret was beyond anyone’s control but believes communication could have been better and some at-risk residents should have been moved.

He said the fact the residents took the issue to the media “tends to point to a larger breakdown in how things of this nature get handled.”

“An emergency plan should have been established for emergencies (power, heat, rain events) to minimize the impact on residents’ lives. The plan should be in place city-wide. Finally, are there any Senior Task Force or agencies/advocates that focus on seniors? Those individuals and elected officials can really be useful allies in cases like this.”

When the outage happened, state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she contacted code enforcement to check whether the air conditioner repairs were made.

No violations were found on the initial visit Aug. 1 and a follow-up visit the day after, said Ashley Papagni, a city spokesperson.

In addition to calls to code enforcement about violations, “...building inspectors conduct annual State of Florida fire inspections for senior living facilities,” said Papagni.

“Each facility is required to have a safety plan for emergencies... and show the availability of an emergency electric generator during disasters or the location of where the occupants will be moved,” she said in an email.

‘A living and breathing plan’

How to protect seniors’ quality of life is what the age-friendly communities membership is trying to determine.

Planner Paul Lewis said the report provides a framework for tackling issues that affect older residents.

“As we proceed with the action plan.. there is constant reevaluation to make it a living and breathing plan,” Lewis said.

A study in the journal Communications & Environment last month said temperatures and humidity of 103 degrees should happen 20 to 50 times a year by 2050. Couple that with the six months of hurricane season in Florida and cooling issues will continue to be a concern for state and local governments and the not-for-profits focused on older adult quality-of-life issues and environmental justice.

The Orlando initiative addresses challenges for older residents as it relates to cooling for homeowners and multi-unit buildings and public spaces.

For instance, seniors will be able to access low-interest loans for sustainable improvements made to their homes through the Solar and Energy Loan Fund (SELF). State Housing Initiatives Partnerships Program (SHIP), HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) can be used to fix “safety and health‐related code violations,” allowing older residents to age in place.

Older adults will be considered in the planning of parks that will include providing shady areas and water features such as splash pads.

The city will be “investing in a transportation system that reduces pollution and provides protection from... exposure to extreme heat.”

The city plans to have resilience hubs, where seniors can go to get cool and charge their phones after a disaster.

Six already-standing community centers will be retrofitted into resilience hubs to give neighbors a place to cool off, pick up some storm-related supplies, charge devices and access the internet. The year-round hubs will be paid for by a federal grant of $2.85 million given to Orlando through the state in October. The upgraded centers should be ready in about two years.

People over 65 are especially vulnerable to heat-related health concerns, said Dr. Tim Hendrix, medical director of AdventHealth Centra Care, part of a health system based in Florida.

“As we get older, it becomes more difficult for us to cool our bodies and adjust to the temperature,” Hendrix said.

Common medications taken by seniors, particularly some blood pressure medications, can also impact the body’s ability to cool itself down, Hendrix added.

On a recent Friday, Stewart had this to say about her still working air conditioner at Kinneret: “Thank the Lord.”

Orlando Sentinel reporter Caroline Catherman contributed to this report. This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the RRF Foundation for Aging.