When Old Age and Addiction Collide - Page 3

By Jennifer Matesa 07/23/12

A startlingly fast-growing number of baby boomers and retirees are falling victim to America's next wave of addiction. Think Medicare covers drug treatment? Think again.

Hands across America

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Doris’s family had to pay out of pocket for detox services at Emory University—and even then, Elizabeth says, Doris was so desperate for drugs that she threatened suicide, called in false prescriptions, and faked a middle-of-the-night injury at her assisted living facility to get sent to the emergency department, where, as a former nurse, she knew how to game the system for more painkillers. Doris has now successfully tapered down to 40 milligrams, Elizabeth says. The plan, she says, is to get Doris down to 10 milligrams once per day, with additional pain control provided through physical and psychological therapy.

“She is coherent now,” Elizabeth says. “Her handwriting has improved dramatically, she has lost weight since she’s no longer watching TV in bed all day long, and her overall mood is one of being with us instead of being obsessed about pain and pain pills.” She has also stopped falling so frequently—a situation diagnosed in detox as postural hypotension resulting from excessive opioid use, Elizabeth says.

Krantz says 40 percent of Hanley’s older adults enter treatment at the urging of family members who notice their loved one falling frequently or sustaining unexplained bruises. “Don’t just chalk it off to age,” she says. “You may see their hygiene declining, their memory loss increasing. They may isolate. They may have malnutrition. They may start to complain about sleep disturbances, or their other diseases may be getting worse. In these circumstances people need to start thinking about addiction.”

After Sharyn fell twice, her daughter saw she needed help and got her into rehab. “I was incoherent on the phone, and if she visited me, I was always sleeping,” Sharyn says. She stayed at Hanley for 113 days and went from there into an intensive outpatient program in North Carolina. Now she continues her recovery in 12-step programs. Since getting clean, she actually has less pain, and she can relate to her granddaughters, who initially were “very leery about seeing Nanny again because of the person I used to be.”

Carol Aronberg made it into detox after her daughter “rescued” her when she overdosed for the third time on alcohol and pills. Her daughter found out about Hanley from a cousin in Florida and arranged for Carol’s admission. She has been clean and sober since January 2011, and she and Sharyn both agree that the rehab program tailored for their generation made all the difference. 

“It was important to me that I wasn’t sleeping next to an 18-year-old,” Sharyn says.

“You can’t be in a treatment program with all different age groups. We have different needs,” Aronberg says. “Our children are grown, we have grandchildren that are grown. Energy-wise, I might have fit in with the baby-boomers, but I needed to be with my own age group because of the quietness of the evenings. Fortunately I had the sense to realize that, if I’m going to be here, I’m going to get the best for me.”

Among her fellow patients in the program for older adults, Aronberg noticed that, despite their relative wealth, many of them had enormous fear of growing old and not being taken care of in their age. “That loneliness was a factor” that exacerbated their addiction, she says. “There was a lot of denial. Several people did relapse. There weren’t that many who had the same do-or-die attitude that I did.”

Aronberg is in the process of selling her business to concentrate on her own recovery. Like many women her age, she has spent a lifetime thinking of other people, and now she’s developing a new attitude. “Everybody has depended on me, and I’m done,” she says. “I’m not feeling guilty about it. I’m in a phenomenal new life—I’m happy, and I have a reason to live. Instead of looking at life like, ‘Why me?’ I don’t even think like that anymore. It’s like, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Jennifer Matesa is a frequent contributor to The Fix, and she writes about addiction and recovery issues on her blog, Guinevere Gets Sober. An author, educator, and public speaker, she is lecturing this summer to medical students about her family’s experience with addiction as part of a Scaife Foundation-funded program to educate doctors about addiction—one of only two such programs for medical students in the U.S.

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.