Dementia Patients Party Through the Night

Dementia Patients Party Through the Night

As midnight approaches on a Monday night, the late night dance party is just getting started in Riverdale, N.Y. But the folks hitting the dance floor aren't the young, hip partiers you might expect; instead, they are senior citizens.

Among the revelers is 85-year-old Maria Navarro, a spirited grandmother who still loves to salsa.

Navarro is part of what some experts are calling a revolutionary new program for those living with Alzheimer's and dementia.

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The one-of-a-kind program, offered at New York City's Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale, caters to the nightly sleeplessness that can be caused by a combination of Alzheimer's or dementia and old age.

For Navarro, the program has been life-altering. Sunset used to be a dreaded enemy, signaling a time of fear and loneliness when her dementia took hold and made it difficult to sleep.

"Sometimes she would knock on my door for the smallest of items," Navarro's son, Paul, told "Good Morning America." "You know, like 'Can I have a drink of water' or 'I have to go to the bathroom' or 'I can't sleep.' I basically had no life for close to two-and-a-half years."

Navarro tried to soothe his widowed mother as best he could, but nothing worked. And the idea of admitting his mother to a nursing home was unthinkable.

Then, three years ago, a nurse, noting his fatigue, told him about the unusual all-night program.

Now, every night at 6 p.m., Maria Navarro happily says goodnight to her son and boards a van that takes her to her home-away-from-home.

"At this stage, with different types of dementia ... it's just their clocks are off," said program director Deborah Messina. "You know, sleep is not the same for everyone. As you get older, you need less and less sleep, and if they're sleeping during the day, they're up all night."

Rather than fighting the inconvenient sleep cycle, Messina's program runs with it. Now in its 11th year, the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale offers a full program of activities for dementia patients every night of the week, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Van service is provided to and from the home.

"Our philosophy is that we're engaging their behavior and we're letting it happen. So if someone wants to, you know, get up and walk and pace at 3 o'clock in the morning, we're going to engage that behavior because their internal clocks are so different," Messina said.

'Family' in the Dead of Night

More than therapy, the program offers company and community in the loneliest hours.

"At night, when you are alone and you feel like no one wants you, here we are a family," one of the elderly female patients told "Good Morning America."

Originally, Paul Navarro said his mother was reluctant to go to the program, but by the second week, she was a different person and noticeably more alert. She also managed to make new friends, becoming a part of what staff members at the Hebrew Home call "the clique," a group of Spanish-speaking women who love to gossip as much as they love one another.

For family members, the program -- which is widely supported by the state of New York -- also offers significant financial benefits. It is covered by both Medicare and Medicaid.

The program's popularity has piqued interest from all over the globe. Representatives from senior centers based in Ireland, Canada and Great Britain have sought out advice from the Hebrew Home, hoping to replicate the nighttime program.

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