Kimberly Marselas

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, it’s finally beach season, even if the ocean is still a brisk 60 degrees.

We’ll set off for the Delaware shore in a few weeks in our big ol’ SUV, with a roof rack loaded down with a paddleboard and a kayak and a rental company’s worth of bikes strapped precariously to the back. 

The kids and I will be in that car — me pretending to be some kind of early-vacation, female version of Clark Griswold — while my husband and his mom follow behind in her unburdened sedan. Along the way, they’ll look at all the construction and ponder the shore houses they’d love to own in another life.

Every year, there seems to be a new retirement community going in a little closer to “our”  beach, a spot where warm coastal breezes and gentle bay tides make for the most relaxing nights of the year. It would be no sad place to spend your last years, that’s for sure.

There are a couple of nursing homes tucked into this setting too, which never drew my attention until we passed by while fleeing a drenching, two-day long rain event a couple years ago. We were able to pack up all our stuff and get out of town during the sub-tropical calamity but had to risk driving on flooded roads amid spotty power outages.

Those nursing home residents? I assume they sheltered in place and rode out the storm.

For more and more nursing home residents and retirees, hanging on to life in a coastal home is going to become more threatening in coming years. Those peaceful waves that I love will be crashing down from rising oceans, bringing with them increased risk for flooding and power outages that can quickly turn deadly for medically vulnerable populations. Temperatures will also continue to climb, adding to the danger.

That’s according to Climate Central, which in March released a report looking at the potential risks of sea level rise for senior care facilities in five states. My tiny Delaware didn’t make the cut, but next door in New Jersey, the news was enough to make me feel a little salty. More than 700 licensed beds there could be exposed to frequent or chronic flood risk by 2050.

“These numbers represent a very small fraction of the overall number of facilities and residents in these states, but point to the need for preparedness from coastal flooding by facilities and local emergency managers,” Climate Central reported.

By 2050, Florida is projected to experience a 67% increase in the number of units potentially exposed, amounting to more than 5,900 beds in 91 facilities. And it’s a problem likely occurring across the U.S. Census data shows that coastal populations over age 65 went up by 89% between 1970 and 2010.

We know seniors want to retire in the places they love. We all do. But should policy allow it, especially for licensed, i.e. skilled facilities?

While Climate Central’s report is designed as a call to action to protect residents from future adverse events (noting the challenge in moving medically complex patients or those with cognition issues), I’m a little more bitter about policy failures.

Or maybe I’m mad about policy’s ability to keep up with science.

Climbing sea level is no new threat, so why have towns and counties along many U.S. coasts continued to allow developments that put seniors in danger?

Yes, the seniors that move in today will be fine for their lifespans. But nursing homes aren’t short-term investments, and the owners and operators will fight hard to keep moving residents into those approved buildings for a generation to come.

(By the way, my concern is the same for the new single family homes and luxury hotels that also seem to crop up each summer. How many times will insurers and the government bail out water-logged communities in the future before rezoning or refusing new building permits?)

As we approach 2050 and flooding becomes a constant reality, who will determine when it’s time to give up the ship? Ocean breeze and sea spray aside, those decisions won’t be a real day at the beach for anyone.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.