Elder Belle's Blessing: The Gold Coats
(Photo by Patrice Carlton and published by National Geographic.)
The winners for this edition of Elder Belle's Blessing, an award given from time to time to those who have enhanced the health and well-being of elders, are men who are in prison and who won the award because of the service and care they provide to other prisoners suffering from the various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's Disease. I learned about these men from an article in the New York Times.
The setting for the story is the Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, California. Both the stricken and the care-givers are long term prisoners due to the nature of their crimes and/or the stiffening of penalties through such law-and-order mandates as the "Third Strike" law.
Dementia in prison is an underreported but fast-growing phenomenon, one that many prisons are desperately unprepared to handle. It is an unforeseen consequence of get-tough-on-crime policies — long sentences that have created a large population of aging prisoners. About 10 percent of the 1.6 million inmates in America’s prisons are serving life sentences; another 11 percent are serving over 20 years.
And more older people are being sent to prison. In 2010, 9,560 people 55 and older were sentenced, more than twice as many as in 1995. In that same period, inmates 55 and older almost quadrupled, to nearly 125,000, a Human Rights Watch report found. ...
With many prisons already overcrowded and understaffed, inmates with dementia present an especially difficult challenge. They are expensive — medical costs for older inmates range from three to nine times as much as those for younger inmates. They must be protected from predatory prisoners. And because dementia makes them paranoid or confused, feelings exacerbated by the confines of prison, some attack staff members or other inmates, or unwittingly provoke fights by wandering into someone else’s cell. ...
Realizing that California, with nearly 13,000 inmates 55 and older, could not adequately care for demented prisoners, Dr. Hodel, when she was starting the Gold Coat program, asked the regional chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to train inmates to help. The chapter’s area director, Sara Bartlett, worried that she and Arlene Stepputat, then the program director, would not be safe as “women in a man’s prison.” She doubted whether violent felons could provide sensitive care.
Both women were surprised that inmates seemed more receptive, with less-complicated emotional ties to the patients than many of the people they trained to care for relatives at home. “They were much easier to work with,” Ms. Stepputat said.
Heriberto G. Sanchez, chief psychologist of the California Men’s Colony, said prisoners “were appreciative that someone from the outside world thought they could do this.” One wrote in an evaluation, “Thank you for allowing me to feel human.”
The prison requires that Gold Coats have “a clean behavior record for about 5 to 10 years,” Dr. Steed said. So far, only one Gold Coat has been removed, because “he had problems” with dementia patients’ messy eating and other behaviors, Dr. Hodel said.
I urge you to read the entire article so that you can see just what the Gold Coats do for their charges, what they are subjected to from other inmates, and how they cope through it all.
In terms of disclosure, Alzheimer's is a big deal in my family. Both my father and my brother died from complications of that disease. I have been diagnosed with the earliest opening stages. So far, beyond staying physically active and making an effort to interact socially (I am a hermit by nature), I have not had a need for any extra care, but that is likely in the years to come.
Additionally, and perhaps just as important, I am a Christian, something which frequently drives my lefty friends crazy. I believe in redemption and I much prefer mercy to justice because I've lived long enough to know the difference. And I am committed to the words of that Jewish carpenter's son who reminded us that "Even as you have done to the least of these, my brethren, you have done unto me."
So, I think the Gold Coats, whatever their past, deserve this award and much more.