A death in North Anson last week was Maine’s first fire fatality of the year, but it continued a disturbing trend. Older adults are disproportionately represented among the people who fail to escape a burning building.

William Bloom, 63, died after a blaze engulfed his house Jan. 2, when items left too close to a space heater burst into flames.

According to friends, Bloom was an intelligent book lover, who, they said, also suffered narcolepsy and short-term memory problems and was considered “quite a hoarder.”

Such issues are not necessarily age-related, but they present a specific risk when combined with the physical disabilities that become more common as people get older.

Public safety officials are starting to notice common factors that put seniors at risk and are creating programs to address them.

Maine State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas told Maine Public that Bloom’s death reflects a trend. Thomas says he has noticed that when elderly people are present in a home that catches fire, they tend to die at higher rates than others.

“The average time we see multiple numbers of fire fatalities in a home is usually a senior, you know, 60s and up. And what we generally see is we lose the husband and the wife, not just the husband or the wife,” he said.

These observations fit with national statistics.

People over age 65 make up only 16 percent of the population, but they make up almost a third of the people who die in fires. While many seniors are physically able and mentally sharp, there are conditions associated with aging that can make elders more vulnerable.

There are a number of factors that make this a problem that Maine should take seriously. Maine is not only the country’s oldest state (by median age) but also the state with some of the oldest housing stock. Low-income Maine seniors may not have the resources they need to maintain their homes and could be living with unsafe conditions.

The state took a step in the right direction this week, when Gov. Mills announced that she would issue $15 million in senior housing bonds that were approved by voters in 2014 but stalled by Gov. Paul LePage. The plan to act on the bonds will eventually trim the waiting list of seniors who need affordable housing – a list that is currently 10,000 names long.

That’s not a solution, though. It’s just the first step. Maine needs a coordinated effort to make sure that the trend that state officials have identified does not continue.

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