Florida hot line helps elderly residents live at home

An elderly woman phones to say she has no food and cannot get any, because she has had a fall. A nonagenarian calls for help in caring for her lawn. A Vermonter phones about his mother. Like the others, she lives alone near Orlando. She wants to continue doing so but needs cleaning help and sometimes seems confused.

It's a typical morning for the Help Line at the Senior Help Center in downtown Orlando. Calls are flowing in to the hot line for senior citizens: Whatever the problem, a call to one number will help to solve them.

In Florida, ``our concept of long-term care ... involves a philosophy of providing services to enable an elderly person to be'' in his or her home rather than having to be placed in a nursing institution, says Robert Bridger. The help may be minimal, such as lawn raking or occasional homemaking, or considerable. Mr. Bridger is a senior human-services program manager in Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

``The driving force in Florida is the demographics,'' says Judy Thames, who directs the agency on aging serving east central Florida.

Florida has a higher percentage of elderly than any other state. Further, says US Sen. Bob Graham (D), it has twice the average number of people over 85 - but ``less than half'' as many residents in nursing homes as the national average. Nationally 3 in 10 Americans over 85 are in nursing homes. Mr. Graham was Florida's governor when the program was undertaken and was a driving force in establishing it.

``There's no way,'' Ms. Thames says, ``that Florida could afford the number of nursing-home beds we would need if we didn't maintain [the elderly] in their own environment.''

In response to the challenge recognized in the late 1970s, the state, counties, cities, and private agencies set up a myriad of programs and expanded old ones, with the aim of helping the elderly live at home. Three years ago the governor's committee on aging decided that a more cohesive policy was required. ``We had a lot of the pieces,'' Thames says. ``What we didn't have was a way to put the pieces together.''

``We've proved, if you tell seniors that there is a place to call - they will use that phone number,'' says Betty Zuckerman, project director of the coalition of aging services in Orlando.

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