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Fire at St. Petersburg senior facility underscores challenges of an aging population

ST. PETERSBURG — Oscar Jenkins' birthday meal went up in smoke.

He remembers it this way: He was frying up some fish on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a 76th birthday treat, when all of a sudden there was smoke. Water rained down from the ceiling. He rushed around, turning everything off and hustling out of the room.

The problem is, none of that actually happened. Except the fire part.

Jenkins' apartment caught fire Monday night after the 76-year-old man set macaroni and cheese on the stove to reheat and forgot about it.

A friend said he took a few shots of alcohol and feel asleep in his recliner while smoke filled his room at Arlington Arbor, a St. Petersburg low-income housing facility.

Jerome Williams, a 45-year-old St. Petersburg resident, was visiting his mother next door when he saw the smoke. Williams, who had served in the Army as a staff sergeant, said he ran into the smoke plume, scooped up Jenkins and rushed him over to his mother's apartment.

"I opened the door, and you could see the flames," Williams said. "This morning, he didn't remember anything at all."

Arlington Arbor staff said the incident underscored a mounting difficulty among senior housing facilities. With baby boomers reaching their silver ages, more people are turning to senior facilities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

But for places like Arlington Arbor, there's basically nothing they can do to help residents who have dementia or Alzheimer's, said Christina Guthrie, Arlington Arbor administrator. Usually, staff doesn't even know about the condition until there's an incident. And this is the second accidental fire in two months.

"On our end, we can't really get involved," Guthrie said.

The fire damaged Jenkins' apartment, and the water from the sprinklers damaged a wellness center below it. She said Jenkins will be moved to an empty apartment in the facility.

She said since the facility isn't meant for assisted living, the residents are responsible for themselves. The only way the facility can force a resident to get help is if the Florida Department of Children and Families gets involved.

Some have family or caretakers that look after them, but many don't.

"A lot of them don't have family," she said. "A lot of them die and we look to see their next of kin, and there is none."

As far as anyone knows, Jenkins doesn't have any close family. He isn't married and doesn't have children. Williams said he's Jenkins' only regular visitor.

"It's sad in a sense, but it is what it is," Williams said. "You might as well say he doesn't have a family. They're very estranged."

Guthrie said she's never had an incident before with Jenkins, but she will ask a service coordinator to see what options are available. If it's determined he can't live on his own, he will move to an assisted living facility.

"Oscar, he's really to himself, so it hasn't really come out, until now," she said.

Jenkins said he didn't plan anything special for his birthday, but it ended up being interesting anyway.

"I thought I was going to have a nice birthday," he said. "I'm surprised to still be living."

Meredith Rutland can be reached at mrutland@tampabay.com.

Fire at St. Petersburg senior facility underscores challenges of an aging population 01/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 9:52pm]
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