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Published: Tuesday, March 01, 2011, 7:00 AM Updated: Tuesday, March 01, 2011, 7:10 PM

By Eunice Lee/The Star-Ledger

Younger ResidentsNEWARK — Kevin Johnson sized up his next shot and eased his way around the pool table, leaving his walker by the wall at New Community Extended Care Center in Newark last week.

A few years ago, the former Turnpike toll collector wouldn’t have imagined that he would be living at a nursing home, at age 49. Doctors first diagnosed his lower back pain as degenerative diseased discs, but the condition spread to an infection in his hips which made him less mobile. With the antibiotic medication he takes intravenously, family members are unable to care for him from home.

Younger people are finding themselves in similar situations, a trend that’s driving down the average age in traditional nursing homes.

Nationally, the 65 and under population in nursing homes jumped by more than 27 million from 1999 to 2008, from 11.1 percent to 13.7, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. More than a quarter of the residents at the center in Newark are under age 60. The youngest resident is 26.

"When I first got here, I didn’t want to stay," said Johnson, who is waiting for hip implant surgery. "It can be monotonous everyday," he said, and recreation room activities like the pool table provide a welcome diversion.

The pool table anchors the new rec room that is geared towards younger residents. The room also has skee ball, a mini basketball hoop, ring toss, a flat screen television and playing cards — alternatives to standard past-times like bingo for the younger patients now being admitted.

"The term ‘nursing home patient’ has changed dramatically over the years," said Richard Grosso Jr., director of Lakeview Subacute Care Center, who has worked in nursing homes for 38 years. The average resident at this traditional nursing home in Wayne is 59-years-old, and the youngest is in their 20s, Grosso said.

"That’s young by nursing home standards, when the average age is 85," said Paul Langevin, president of the Health Care Association of New Jersey.

Younger nursing home residents are part of a larger trend in healthcare, according to director John Heath of the Geriatric Medicine Fellowship at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Patients spend less time in hospitals and get discharged faster, he said. Many, including young people, are admitted to nursing homes to recover. While staying there, younger patients want more to do than just attend physical therapy sessions once a day.

"That’s great, but what about the other 22 hours of the day?" Heath said.

Administrator Michael Neiman, who has worked in nursing homes for 15 years, noticed the age shift about two years ago. Recently the staff at his Perth Amboy-based nursing home AristaCare at Alameda Center outfitted a young woman’s room with modern entertainment.

"We set up the Wii (and) we set up some electronic games so the day could pass easier for her," said Neiman of the center where patients range from age 18 to 98. "You can’t expect them to just play the same things or do the same games that the 70- and 80-year-olds are doing."

Lakeview caters to younger tech-savvy residents by hardwiring internet access into each bed and having wireless access throughout the building, Grosso said.

Places like Cheshire Home in Florham Park focus solely on younger, working age patients who need around-the-clock care. Patients ages 18 to 55 get help boning up on job-related skills, like computer training and adaptive technology.

"That’s what it demands when you have people who are 40- and 50-years-old and have a totally different lifestyle than someone in their 80s," Langevin said.

For instance, mealtimes differ for younger residents who typically go to bed later and wake up later, Neiman said.

"They might be used to getting up at 9 o’clock in the morning, and if you serve breakfast at a quarter to eight, it’ll be cold by then," he said.

Back in Newark, Johnson and fellow resident Ká-Ryn Eley shared a light moment while shooting pool, but both have serious medical procedures looming ahead.

Eley, 48, is battling breast cancer and has no other family in Newark. She had surgery a few months ago and is due to start chemotherapy and hormone treatment this month.

"I don’t see how you missed that one," teased Eley, a former delivery truck driver at The Star-Ledger.

"Thanks for the set up, I appreciate it," Johnson joked back.

The rec room is open to all residents and has caught the eye of older folks. Eleanor Sanders, 72, prefers activities that are livlier than stamping "B-4" on a bingo card.

"That’s a sissy’s game. I don’t like bingo," she said while peering into the game room. "This is more of a competition here - I like it."

Johnson, who took breaks during the game, said the exercise helps strengthen his legs. "It actually makes the pain more bearable."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the percentage of residents at the New Community Extended Care Center in Newark who are under age 60. At the time of publication, 42 of the 150 residents were under age 60.

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From http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/03/us_nursing_home_populations_gr.html

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