The New York Post By Rocco Parascandola
Not for a second did Charles Crayton – husband, father, deacon, Transit Authority worker – think he’d ever turn to drugs.
But when his wife of nearly 40 years, Sandra, developed lung cancer 10 years ago, Crayton, at a friend’s urging, found solace in heroin.
He was 50 years old.
“If someone had told me I’d be using drugs, I would have told him he was crazy – out of his mind,” Crayton told the Post.
“During the ’60s I witnessed the drug culture. I worked in a liquor store in Bedford-Stuyvesant and drugs were all over. But never in a million years did I think I’d use them.”
Crayton doesn’t fit the stereotype of an addict – someone who gets hooked early and dies young.
The state Division of Criminal Justice Services reports that drug arrests of people 60 and older have risen dramatically in the city since the mid-’90s – from 350 in 1994 to 807 in 1998.
And while some of the spike is from a heightened police focus on drugs, experts say it is more the result of users starting later in life – particularly during the cocaine and crack heyday of the mid-to-late ’80s – and those using drugs since the counterculture of the ’60s.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges – to make people more aware that this problem exists,” said Dr. Peter Provet, president of Odyssey House, an East Harlem drug-treatment center that runs what is believed to be the only long-term residential program for addicts 55 and over.
“Part of the problem is that there is a societal denial of this problem and that ‘Why should we bother? These folks don’t care about themselves.’
“But we find that [older abusers] want to prove to themselves that they can do something better and they want to find a pride and esteem within themselves.”
Crayton, now 60, seemed an unlikely candidate to turn to drugs so late in life.
“But when my wife got sick I was in bad shape,” Crayton said. “My state of mind was down and out and I just threw caution to the wind.
“I remember explicitly lying in bed – my wife was there – and I was twitching and getting ill. I got out of bed at 1:30 in the morning and drove to Brooklyn to buy heroin.
“That’s when I knew I was addicted.”
After his wife died, Crayton plunged into heavy drug use, ultimately spending more than $70,000, leaving his church and dropping 40 pounds from his already-thin frame.
“I was a mess, but when you’re using you don’t see that,” he said.
In 1993, he was busted for selling drugs to an undercover cop. Another arrest in 1997 frightened him into going straight.
“My life flashed before me and I thought to myself, ‘What would Sandra think if she saw me now?'” he recalled.
Today Crayton, who is engaged to be married, says, “Drugs are not an option now.”
Luis Suarez, 72, feels the same – 13 years after he fell head-over-heels for Elsie, a beautiful younger woman with a nasty drug habit.
“She gave me crack and I kept doing it because I liked the girl,” Suarez said. “My mind was like a baby.”
Suarez eventually alienated his 17 children and burned through his savings from years as a construction worker and musician.
One day, when a dealer told him to come back in a half-hour, Suarez instead stopped at a church, had a heart-to-heart talk with a priest and walked out determined not to do drugs again.
Eventually, “I got my family back,” he said. “I don’t feel alone no more.”
The largest group of addicts approaching old age is those who started young and kept using, managing to maintain access to dealers and to keep themselves up physically, says Dr. Robert Millman, director of drug- and alcohol-abuse services at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“These are people who do figure out how to continue using,” Millman says. “They do stay out of the way of the law, for the most part. They fit it into their lives in a ritualized way.”