New York Daily News By Thomas Zambito
At first glance, it could be a gathering of church elders on a Sunday morning.
But the seven men and women gathered in the basement of an East Harlem treatment center are among the city’s most incorrigible drug addicts.
Now in their late 50s and 60s, they have battled decades-long addictions, bouncing back and forth between getting high and getting sober. Having squandered their money and alienated friends and family, they are here trying to salvage what’s left.
There is 57-year-old Manuela Bookman, a one-time queen of the Hunts Point crack trade, who made as much as $4,000 a day in the mid-1980s. She snorted so much cocaine she destroyed the linings of her nose.
A judge ordered Bookman here two years ago after she was caught selling drugs to an undercover cop in the Bronx. A mother of six and grandmother of 11, she spend Mother’s Day at Riker’s Island.
In 1987, one of her sons was shot to death by a rival dealer on the spot where she used to sell drugs. “He took his last breath in my arms,” Bookman says.
There is Ruth Williams, 66, whose fabulous success – she owned five restaurants, two nightclubs and a bar in Brooklyn – became her demon.
“I wanted to be down with the nightclub folks,” Williams says of her 30-year addiction. “The cocaine made me do 90 miles an hour in a 10-mile zone.”
They have all landed here on E. 121st St. to take part in a first-of-its-kind residential treatment program for older drug abusers.
Odyssey House started the program more than three years ago as a way to help senior citizens who had dropped out of treatment.
“Consistently what we would hear is, ‘I left because I couldn’t get along with 30-year-old kids’ or ‘I left because the 40-year-olds were too aggressive,'” said Odyssey House President Peter Provet.
So Odyssey created a 50-bed floor for seniors. While other programs offer outpatient services for the elderly, Odyssey is the only one in the state, and possibly the country, to segregate older users for residential treatment. Today, there’s a waiting list to get in.
Statewide, nearly 13,000 people over age 55 were in publicly funded treatment programs in 2000, up from 11,000 in 1999, according to the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
No studies document the trend, and experts are only beginning to recognize the problem.
But they predict the population will only grow as the nation’s senior population expands to record numbers when the baby boom generation turns 65.
The office recently began a campaign to encourage the courts, hospitals and others who deal with the elderly to watch out for older drug users and steer them to treatment. It also is surveying the 1,300 treatment centers it licenses to understand the population better.
Odyssey’s patients provide something of a case study. Some, such as Bookman, have proved resilient, using drugs off and on for decades. Others didn’t start until they were in their 40s and 50s.
At Odyssey, they live under the same roof as young mothers addicted to crack or students hooked on Ecstasy. The victims of every drug epidemic the city has witnessed in the past 40 years are here.
The mix allows for some unusual encounters.
Lilla C. has used crack since she was a freshman in high school. Now 25, Lilla gave birth to a 7 1/2-pound boy on Jan. 31. While she goes through treatment, her mother is raising her two oldest children, ages 6 and 7, in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
One afternoon, sitting in a second-floor playroom, she recalled the anger she felt during a recent visit home when her children called her mother “Mommy.”
“It’s like I did something wrong to them,” Lilla said. “Nobody should be disciplining them but me. I don’t want anyone with my kids – nobody.”
Bookman understood. Her addiction has humbled her plenty of times. For years, she broke off contact with most of her children. “A drug addict hates for someone to preach to them,” she said.
But on this afternoon, Bookman played the role of the wise elder.
“Your kids couldn’t be in better hands than to be with your blood,” she told her. Lilla shrugged.
“We all have family,” Provet said. “We all know the importance of family. Many drug users don’t have that embedded in their psyches. We’re giving them a year to get a sense of what it means to be part of a larger group.”
A week later, Odyssey’s residents gathered in a first-floor cafeteria for a memorial service.
On Jan. 11, the day before he was to leave Odyssey House, Joseph Carwell, a popular member of the older-abusers group, died of a heart attack. It happened as he was making his goodbyes to fellow residents, encouraging them to stick with the program and finish.
Privately, Provet was concerned that an already fragile population woud be crushed by Carwell’s death.
But that afternoon, one by one, more than a dozen residents, tears in their eyes, took their turn in front of the group and talked about Carwell.
Bookman, who met him soon after she arrived at Odyssey, was among the first to speak.
“He was always on my back, trying to get me to do the right thing,” Bookman said. “He would tell me, ‘I know you want to get out of here, but you’re going to finish.’ I think the Lord picked this time and place for a reason so that the ones he left behind would become closer.”