Prison and Dementia: New Story and Video about A Hidden Population of Those with Dementia and Their Caregivers

By Kathy Kelly, MPA, Executive Director at Family Caregiver Alliance As part of the Vanishing Mind series about Alzheimer’s in the New York Times, an article and video entitled, Life, With Dementia is a compelling account of a hidden population of prisoners with Alzheimer’s disease. The prison profiled in the video is in California where an estimated 13,000 inmates are over the age of 55 and expected to rise due to sentencing laws in the state. Who are the caregivers? Other inmates called “Gold Coats” due to color of their coats as opposed to all others who wear blue. Trained by internal prison staff and members of the Alzheimer’s Association, the Gold Coats provide assistance similar to the tasks performed by personal care assistants in the outside world – help with bathing, dressing, eating, grooming, playing memory games and keeping a watchful eye for abuse of their charges by other inmates. The incidence of dementia is expected to rise within this population due to some higher risk factors: hypertension, diabetes, depression, substance abuse and possible head injuries from fights and other violence. And indeed the prison population profiled are violent offenders sentenced for murder. What makes this particularly compelling is the effect of caregiving on the Gold Coats – the allowance to be empathic and compassionate in a severely structured environment for those serving time for the most violent of human acts. For the prisons, it is a matter of practicality: they do not have the money to pay for personal care services. But ultimately, it is a video and article that just might raise more questions than it answers. Check out: Life, With Dementia