I had a unique experience not too long ago. An experience that I never could have imagined being part of a few years ago. An experience that opened my eyes to new learnings and appreciation for something that was way, way beyond my imagination.
When we think of “aging in place” we think of ourselves and how we will handle this latter chapter of our lives. Or we might think of the current situation with our parents and their struggles as they make medical decisions in their “mature” years. We think of assisted living communities, home health care agencies and perhaps nursing homes.
But here’s something that I bet you haven’t thought about at all. What is happening to the men and women who are incarcerated in our state and federal prisons? Their life is very different from ours, but they too are aging in place.
I am a Certified Dementia Practitioner specializing in Alzheimer’s disease and the related dementias. I recently had the privilege of doing a training at Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine, in conjunction with the Maine Hospice Council. This is Maine’s maximum security prison for men. The Maine Hospice Council has had a successful, active Hospice program in the prison for approximately 15 years. Selected prisoners have had extensive training as Hospice volunteers and provide 24/7 care for Hospice patients in the infirmary since 2008. Beyond that they also provide all of the personal care that a CNA would provide for a patient’s ADLs (Activities of Daily Living) including bathing, feeding, cleaning, dressing, etc. It’s a phenomenal program and they have received many awards for their work.
I was there to talk about Alzheimer’s and dementia, as the Hospice patients and other prisoners were showing signs of dementia as they face their later years in the prison system. What I found was absolutely amazing. I had no idea why the participants were in prison… it didn’t matter and was none of my business. What I did find was a group of 36 men who were concerned about the care that their peers needed and were receiving. These men wanted to help those in the Hospice program and those who were experiencing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. They were attentive to what I had to share, asked in-depth questions related to behaviors and communication techniques and had been creative in many ways as to how they had handled the challenging behaviors they were faced with on a daily basis.
These men were just amazing! What I saw was the compassionate, sensitive side of these prisoners’ personalities. They were fulfilling a personal need to assist others who were showing confusion, forgetfulness and loss of ability to care for themselves. Dementia patients in this environment are very vulnerable and can be taken advantage of very easily. For those in the outside world facing Alzheimer’s or dementia there are numerous support systems and family to assist them. For those on the “inside,” those options don’t exist. They still have to follow the rules – even though they may not understand the directions. They don’t have the ability to wander at night. They must eat when they are told, even though they might have forgotten that they ate 10 minute ago and want more food NOW. The prison personnel have a lot of responsibility and I can’t imagine them having the patience to answer the same question 10 times in 30 minutes. Because of these circumstances, the Alzheimer’s or dementia prisoner faces very different obstacles as they journey through this difficult disease process and age in place.
There are a number of prisons throughout the US that are offering similar programs for their inmates, but many that do not. The Maine Hospice Council deserves many accolades for the wonderful work they are doing in assisting these prisoners to age in place with dignity. I was thankful to be a small part of their program.
Source: Doreen C. Putnam Certified Dementia Practitioner
Rhode Island Prime Time March, 2016 Aging in Place
Photo Credit: www.dailymail.co.uk