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A Plight Understood by Elders

The New York Times By Clyde Haberman


Darryl Strawberry, the recovering drug user, cancer survivor and sometime baseball player, was back in the news this week for all the usual reasons. He was in trouble with the law.

Mr. Strawberry’s troubles came to the attention of a woman in Harlem named Thomasina, who found them of more than passing interest. How could she not? She has fought her own demons over the years, same as the women and men she lives with on East 121st Street, at a drug treatment residence run by Odyssey House.

Whatever the legal ins and outs of Mr. Strawberry’s latest mess, people at the residence figured that his longtime romance with drugs lay at the core of his problem. They had differences, though, on the deeper meaning.

“Everybody was saying what a fool he was,” said Thomasina, who agreed to a chat as long as her last name was not used. “But I think he’s a very sick person, and hasn’t gotten the guidance he needs. In a way, I consider him a very poor guy.

“As you can see,” she said, “he started with drugs in his teens. And then he got older. It’s a lot like us.”

By “us,” she meant 50 people living at Odyssey House in a program called ElderCare, geared to alcohol and drug abusers who are 55 and older.

A few are in their 70’s. Obviously, they have a good many years on Mr. Strawberry, who is 38. But all have at least one concern in common: dealing with the burdens of growing older while also straightening out lives misshapen by booze, pills, heroin, crack, you name it.

Some did not begin to get hooked until they were middle-aged.

Thomasina was one of them. She was 50 and working as a hospital nurse, she said, when she started using heroin. this was after her two small children died in a fire in their Brooklyn apartment. Be happy to be spared the details. They would break your heart.

“I just got more and more depressed,” said Thomasina, now 58.

“The father of my children used heroin, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I was a nurse, and I knew better than that. But I was so depressed. I did it, I guess, to kill myself.”

She and a few fellow residents talked the other day about how they tumbled into the black hole of addiction at ages when people are supposed to have acquired some wisdom.

Susie Richardson, 59, began smoking marijuana and crack at 50 because, she acknowledged, “I was curious.” She also felt her life coming unglued after learning that her son had H.I.V., the AIDS-causing virus. Gerardo Alvetorio, 57, was an auto mechanic in his mid-30’s when he succumbed to cocaine – not old, but hardly a kid either. A former truck driver named John, 67, said he “kind of rewarded myself” with crack and powdered cocaine on his 50th birthday. That started his decline.

Perhaps you will call some of these wounds self-inflicted, and you may not be wrong. But that does not make the troubles any less real.

Peter Provet, Odyssey House’s president, calls addiction among those who are middle-aged and beyond “an unspoken, unaddressed problem.” its scope defies precise measurement, he said, because figures on, say, 60-year-old heroin addicts are hard to come by. But the ElderCare program’s long waiting list tells him that the problem is there all the same.

Nor are illicit drugs the only issue, not by a long shot. Alcoholism among older people is a big worry, as is the abuse of legal prescription drugs. An “invisible epidemic” is how the situation has been described by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

A 1998 report from that agency said that problems with alcohol and pills affect as much as 17 percent of American adults age 60 and up. Many showed no signs of trouble until they were well into their 60’s and even 70’s. Aging, the report noted, “makes the body more vulnerable” to the effects of alcohol and drugs.

New York State’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services said that 4.1 percent of the 277,535 people treated last year in state-licensed programs were 55 and older. That may not sound like a high percentage. But it represents more than 11,000 people, and that number may well rise as the baby boomers age.

There is another effect of growing older: piecing together a shattered life hardly gets easier. Darryl Strawberry is finding that out. So is Thomasina, who expects to leave ElderCare soon after nearly two years and to go back to work as a nurse.

“You have to start all over again,” she said. “At this age, it is not a beautiful thing.

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