In the aftermath of Sandy, many questions remain. One that is uppermost for many who saw the multiple kinds of devastation a storm like Sandy could wreak has to do with how to adequately prepare, protect and serve seniors, the ailing and disabled before, during and after such an event. At this time, there is no effective system in place in our area to help such individuals during a natural or man-made catastrophe, and there should be. The most vulnerable among us should be top priority, not forgotten or bypassed either by communities or the systems that purport to serve them.
What Bergen County does have to offer this population is assistance mainly through the Bergen County Division of Senior Services, an arm of the Bergen County Department of Human Services. BCDSS has been in existence since 1966 and advocates for the seniors, providing multi-tiered help such as in-home assistance, meals on wheels, Medicare, Medicaid and education. The Bergen Aging and Disability Resource Connection (ADRC) Outreach Unit, a section of this division, is responsible for networking with services and facilities that benefit the 60-plus population in Bergen County. It is here that BCDSS aims to focus its energy, strengthening the Outreach Unit so that it may more efficiently serve seniors when disasters strike.
Lee Werbrouck, the assistant director of DSS, spoke to the needs of the elderly and agreed that an effective system needs to be put in place “as soon as possible” to better assist them in emergencies. Those stuck without heat and power in a senior complex can be tracked by authorities, but those living alone, without tools for communication can so easily be devastated. Seniors that live alone or in isolated areas are especially hard to reach.
Werbrouck said she and her staff have tossed about ideas, but have not come up with a perfect plan to reach more seniors. She said, “we want seniors to take responsibility for themselves.” To that end, she urges seniors to register in their town or at the New Jersey Special Needs Registry so that departments know of their existence and location. She suggests seniors do this now, before the next disaster.
In the event of a natural disaster or catastrophe, she said, authorities and professionals--from police to meals on wheels to mailmen to garbage collectors-- should have a list of people they serve, so that they can track and assist those in need. The key is to work together. “We have to reach out to seniors where they go—in supermarkets, salons, the post office. Seniors need to have lists of what to do that the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) provides, that will tell them how to prepare for a storm.” OEM brochures are available in many locations such as The Jack Alter Community Center in Fort Lee. Volunteers can also help to distribute such brochures in locations like supermarkets frequented by seniors.
According to a recent report put out by the Department of Health, in the year 2000, there were 1,433,782 New Jersey residents that were 60 years or older. By 2030, that population is expected to grow to 2.5 million. More than half (58 percent) of New Jersey’s population that is 60 years of age and over resides in seven counties: Bergen, Ocean, Essex, Middlesex, Monmouth, Hudson and Union. The largest population of elderly individuals, which now exceeds 200,000, lives in Bergen County. Since 1990, the largest population growth has been among those 85-plus, a group that has grown by 42.3 percent and is followed by the 80-84 age group, which has grown by 30 percent.
Clearly, there is a need to better address the needs of this growing population and to better serve it during times of emergency and disasters. Seniors, volunteers and those offering constructive ideas to benefit seniors, the ailing and disabled can reach Bergen County Division of Senior Services by calling 201-336-7400. The office is located at One Bergen County Plaza on the 2nd floor.