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Growing Number of Older Addicts Spawns Unusual Treatment Center

Associated Press By Elizabeth LeSure

In his 60s, Ramon Loper spent the last few years of his musical career desperately feeding a heroin addiction. He rushed from gig to gig, getting cash and getting high.

“And then,” he says, “I broke my hip. Thank God!”

The members of the group session erupt with laughter. A chorus of “Thank God!” rings out.

Loper is a client in the ElderCare program at Odyssey House – one of the few residential drug treatment programs in the country specifically designed to treat the growing population of older substance abusers. Everyone here understands how a broken hip can be a blessing in breaking the cycle of drug abuse.

From a well-kept brick building in East Harlem, the 350-bed Odyssey House treats recovering addicts of all ages. But the building’s fourth floor is reserved for ElderCare, which accepts only people age 55 and older.

These are people who typically feel uncomfortable being candid and confronting their problems in most treatment programs, where participants are usually 18 to 44 years old and sometimes younger.

Odyssey staff say the close peer relationships allow older people – many of whom have had addictions for decades – to finally recover. Residents typically stay in the program for 12 months or more, living in same-sex suites with several other clients.

“You put peers together and you allow them to live together, to support one another, to grow together, to share their stories, their pain, their hopes,” said Peter Provet, the president of Odyssey House.

The publicly funded Odyssey House, founded in 1967, is widely known for a program that allows recovering mothers to live with their children while in treatment. The ElderCare program was founded in 1997, when staffers began to see a small but increasing number of older adults seeking treatment.

Manuela Bookman, 58, is recovering from a 35-year cocaine addiction. The courts referred her to ElderCare after she was arrested on a drug-dealing charge.

“When I was first offered the program, the first thing that came to my mind was ‘I can’t deal with all these young kids. They’re disrespectful,'” Bookman said. “They told me, ‘No, you’re only going to be with people your age, people who can identify with you.’ It sounded OK to me.”

Provet said the program started with a few beds grouped together on the fourth floor. Now, there are always several people on a waiting list to get in.

The number of older adults being treated for substance abuse in the country is small – 1.6 percent of the more than one million substance abuse clients in the nation – but has grown steadily over the last decade, according to Leah Young, a spokeswoman for the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, a federal agency.

The center reports that in 1991, 8,206 clients over the age of 65 were in substance abuse treatment in the United States. By 1998, the number had nearly doubled to 16,247. Young said older adults are more likely to abuse alcohol or prescription drugs, but a persistent number is addicted to “hard” drugs like cocaine or heroin.

“The abuse of illicit drugs in the country has been growing, and you would assume that most of these people will stop before they get to that point,” said Herbert Kleber, director of Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. “But as you increase the total number, some will end up staying on (drugs) into their older years.”

Take Bertie Alston, 58. “Aren’t drugs a young person’s game?” an Odyssey House counselor asked. “Yes, but I started as a young person,” replied Alston, who has spent 36 years addicted to heroin.

Although the federal government doesn’t track exactly how many treatment centers nationwide are geared specifically for older adults, Young said there are very few. One, the Hanley-Hazelden Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., is a 16-bed facility for mostly alcohol and prescription drug abusers.

Carol Colleran, director of older adult services at Hanley-Hazelden, said thousands have gone through its 30-day program, but addiction in older adults remains a largely undiscussed problem.

“People shy away from talking about it,” Colleran said. “It’s really difficult to put a nice little gray-haired grandma in the same sentence that you’re talking about alcoholism or drug abuse.”

Colleran said treatment for older adults is less confrontational than therapy for younger people, and that older people – who did not grow up in what she calls the “self-help” era – have more trouble talking about their feelings.

“People of this generation were not raised to air their dirty laundry,” Colleran said.

Provet said treatment in the Odyssey House program addresses life-stage questions like “What have I done in my life?” and “What mistakes have I made, and how can I correct those mistakes?” But the program succeeds, he said, because residents are able share their life experiences – and empathize with one another.

In a late March treatment session, Julius Small, a recovering alcoholic, told the group he had recently celebrated a birthday.

“I made 70 on the second day of this month,” he says.

The room erupts with applause. It is this kind of support, Provet says, that allows older people to recover.

“We firmly believe that these folks that come to us after suffering for many, many years of their lives can make good,” Provet said. “We do not want, in any way, to write off our elders.”

More than 100 people have completed the ElderCare program at Odyssey House since 1997. Before a resident leaves, he or she creates an “after-care plan” that includes plans for housing, identifies a support network, and works toward independence and financial stability.

When he leaves, Loper said, he would like to counsel other former addicts. Bookman says she will help take care of her grandchildren so her daughter can complete a college degree.

“I finally am able to look at myself in the mirror and see a human being,” Bookman says, “instead of what I was looking at before.”

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