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Turned On, Tuned In, Gone Gray
Drug Counselors Brace For Boomer-User Rush

McClatchy Newspapers

December 27 2006

It's the generation that came of age in the permissive 1960s and '70s, part of the counterculture revolution that embraced the mantra "turn on, tune in, drop out." Now they are graying - but some are still having a hard time breaking away from or resisting marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs.

A national drug survey by the federal government, for example, has found that between 2002 and 2005, use of illegal drugs fell 15 percent among teenagers, but increased 63 percent among people in their 50s.

"The good news is that they may seek us out - heck, they're already beginning to," said Dr. Marvin Seppala, medical director at the Hazelden Foundation, a treatment center in Minnesota. "The bad news is I'm not sure we're ready for them."

For older people, the roads to drug use vary: It's a longtime habit they can't shake. Or a step they take to ease the loneliness, boredom or physical pain that old age that can bring.

As a college student in Iowa in the early 1970s, Ava majored in "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - especially drugs.

"Pot has been my friend, my good buddy since I was 16," she said. "When I'm using, I like the way it makes me feel: relaxed, content, happy. Maybe too relaxed. When I'm not using, I realize that's one reason I'm essentially poor."

Like other illegal-drug users interviewed for this article, Ava doesn't want her neighbors to know of her drug use and realizes she could be arrested. She agreed to describe her life only if she was not fully identified.

"I used to think this was a victimless crime, but it's not. I'm a victim," she said. "They say you don't really get hooked on pot, not like on meth or heroin. But I know I'm addicted."

Marijuana has been her mainstay through the years, but she tried "a buffet of drugs" while in college. She quickly learned to avoid mescaline, LSD, even alcohol because they made her feel out of control or depressed.

"I'm poor, and I hate it. Some days I feel suicidal, like I'll never get out of this," Ava said. "I don't like being this stereotype of a pot-smoking grandma. But smoking helps me forget for a while."

On many days she would like to quit.

Like most people who get treatment, older drug abusers rarely seek help on their own.

Counselors say they often are being led into treatment by their adult children, who sometimes demand they get clean before they can see grandchildren.

"Some are aging hippies who never stopped using alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. Some got into recreational use of cocaine or crack or meth later in life," said drug counselor Judie Heckenliable, lead counselor at Minnesota's Fairview-University Medical Center chemical dependency program. "And some started using as a way of self-medicating, to erase emotional or physical pain."

Retired people living alone are especially vulnerable, because they've lost their normal behavior regulators, she said. "They no longer have the job; they may have lost a spouse and friends; and they can become lonely and depressed."

Substance-abuse counselor Lou Bardal leads a residential treatment group of about a dozen people age 55 and older - the only such residential group in Minnesota. It's not cheap, about $9,400 for the 20-day program, usually paid by insurance or Medicaid.

"Alcohol is the primary drug of choice, but we see everything," said Bardal, who has led the seniors program for eight years.

Bardal and Heckenliable have counseled scores of older addicts, some several times.

"The treatment can be very effective," said Seppala, Hazelden's medical director. "But the sad thing is there are very few treatment programs geared to work with older people."

Counselors deal with older addicts differently than younger ones, he said. The recovery goes at a slower pace for older people, and often includes psychological and medical help.

"For older people, treatment works best when it's in a medical setting ... because older people often have complicating medical and mental-health issues," Seppala said.

"The thing is, we've got a big chunk of baby boomers coming down the age pipeline, and we need to start paying more attention," he said. "Even if the rates of addiction weren't rising in that group, the sheer numbers tell us that a bunch of them will be asking for help."
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