New York Prison Creates Dementia Unit
Tuesday, May 29, 2007; 11:57 AM
FISHKILL, N.Y. -- In the day room, white-haired men in robes watch "The Price is Right." Out on the balcony, another looks through bars as he fidgets from side to side.
Prisons have been dealing with the special needs of older prisoners for years, but the one here in Fishkill state prison is considered unique because it specializes in dementia-related conditions.
The unit _ 30 beds on the third floor of the prison's medical center _ is a first for New York and possibly the nation, though experts say it likely won't be the last as more people grow old behind bars.
The unit has the clean-white-wall feel of a nursing home _ but for the prison bars. A marker board in the day room includes a picture of a sun with a smiley face and a reminder to "Have a great day." The activity calendar lists puppies on Thursday and bingo on Friday. As long as they behave, patients can wander from their rooms to the day room.
"They're still in prison," said Fishkill superintendent William Connolly. "This is just a unique environment within a prison environment."
Connolly said the men's crimes are not considered in the screening process, though their prison record matters. The idea is to provide proper care and a safe environment.
"A lot of guys, when they were confined to the general population, they stayed in their rooms, they wouldn't come out," said nursing director Angela Maume. "They were in a cocoon."
The average age of patients here is 62, or 26 years above the systemwide average. All have been diagnosed with some level of dementia, which in the case of some patients is related to Alzheimer's or AIDS. One has Parkinson's disease and another has Huntington's disease. Some have additional psychiatric or medical disorders.
"Some of them don't even remember their crimes," said Dr. Edward Sottile, medical director for the Hudson Valley prison.
The average age of New York's prisoners is climbing. Inmates 50 and over accounted 3 percent of the prison population two decades ago, compared to 11 percent last year.
Like society as a whole, inmates are getting older as health care improves and baby boomers hit retirement age. But researchers also note that inmates are staying behind bars longer thanks to "three strikes" and other tough-on-crime laws.
Nationwide, the number of prisoners over age 50 in state and federal prisons is rising at about 8 percent a year, said sociologist Ronald Aday, author of "Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections."