The Aging Habit

Senior addicts challenge unprepared service systems

Reece had it all--two long-haul trucks, a couple of kids and a wife. But he had something else, too.

It was the monkey on his back: a heroin addiction developed over two tours with the Marines; in Vietnam's bloody jungles, you mainlined any crutch you could find.

After the war, Reece shoved that monkey back into its cage for years. But eventually, the cage door broke.

Sharon (not her real name) had it all, too. A Tucson native, she grew up in the comfortable suburbs, attended Canyon del Oro and Rincon high schools, became a nurse and landed a good job. But she had a monkey of her own. It climbed aboard after her first heroin fix at 19, and it never really let go. She quit nursing when she started stealing hospital drugs. After that, she became a prostitute.

Reece and Sharon are both 57, old enough by far to join the AARP. Instead, they're barely off the streets, and right now, they're sipping hot soup from paper cups at downtown's Armory Park Senior Center. According to demographers and social scientists, they are the face of the future--baby boomers with stubborn drug problems.

But according to Sharon, the future is already here.

She goes to a downtown methadone clinic run by the Hope Center, only a few blocks from Armory Park. "You should sit outside Hope and watch the number of elderly people going in and out of there," she says. "Or they go to COPE (Community Services) and sit in there in the methadone lobby. You might see an old lady dragging her oxygen, and she's in line to do methadone. You see the little old guys, or women on their scooters, waiting in line."

Like Sharon, Reece is back in rehab for the umpteenth time. He says being an addict doesn't get easier with age. "I'm 57. I'm tired of the bullshit, and I'm tired of being tired. But it's something that never goes away."

Society's baby boomers--weaned on the free-wheeling '60s--are beginning to grow old. They number around 75 million, and a huge percentage of them dabbled in drugs. Some developed habits that stuck. So it's hardly surprising that the number of addicted seniors is starting to climb. At the same time, the nation's social-services system has barely awoken to the challenges it faces, in terms of treatment and other health needs exacerbated by years of drug abuse.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are approximately 1.7 million seniors--50 or older--addicted to drugs. Officials expect that number to reach nearly 4.5 million by 2020. Meanwhile, the number of seniors in treatment for cocaine or heroin problems has more than quadrupled since the early 1990s.

But to date, the system hasn't really made a place for them. Few elderly centers are equipped to deal with drug problems or with seniors who might have spent years on the streets.

Then come health issues arising from chronic drug abuse. "We're seeing people with the results of their addictions," says Stew Grabel, ombudsman for the elderly at the Pima Council on Aging. "They're not addicted right now, but they were." That has resulted in problems such as blood disorders--transmitted by the previous sharing of needles.

Other health problems arise from poor nutrition and neglect. "There is a myth that all drugs will kill you," Grabel says. "In some cases, that's true. But in other cases, it's not. So what we have are elderly addicts our there, looking for different ways to support their addiction. It's very difficult to do on Social Security. So they spend their money (on drugs) rather than food or medicine.

Robin Landers runs the Armory Park Senior Center, where folks facing special challenges--such as Sharon and Reece--are changing the face of her facility. "When people think of homeless people who are using drugs, they think of young kids hanging out on Fourth Avenue," Landers says. "They're not thinking about somebody who's 60 or 70 years old."

But that new reality is forcing society to shift gears. "If you stay alive on heroin long enough, you're going to be 70 or 75," she says. "We're seeing it. We talk about it. But we're not prepared for it."

Landers also must balance her center's open-door approach with the sensibilities of other seniors who come for traditional recreation--doing puzzles or taking fitness classes--and for whom street life is something they only know from TV.

"We're only two blocks from a methadone clinic," she says. "And what we're seeing are huge numbers of people--either drug users or people in recovery--who are 50 or above, so they qualify for membership here."

That makes her something of an ambassador, to ensure that everyone's needs are met, and nobody's feathers are ruffled. "I'm looking at how people are treated when they come in the door," Landers says. "I know they're a human being, and that's all I need to know."

For Sharon and Reece, simply having a place to land is welcome enough, as they try to escape a life where growing older is just one more hurdle to survive. They were recently able to rent a trailer. They're still scraping up the $100 to get their furniture out of storage. And both still fight the addictions that have dogged them for decades.

Sharon says they're hardly alone, as the hippie generation heads for senior citizenship. "I've been through the whole gambit of drugs, and I have friends in their 70s who are still using."

Many owe everything they have to drug dealers, waiting each month for their Social Security payments to arrive. "With the older ones, that's where the check is going 99.9 percent of the time," she says. "There's no way out of it. The dealers are going to make sure there's no way out of it."

Nor is there any way for society to ignore the onslaught of aging drug addicts, she says. "From the 1960s, especially. They've all hustled their way through, with their families and the cults and everything else. So you have a whole stream of addicts and prostitutes and crack heads, all ready to hit these old-folks places. They're here, and there's more coming."

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