The monster within: Drug abuse growing among older adults

Monday, August 4, 2008
KIT DOYLE ~ Lynda Brooks, of St. Louis, has been in recovery at the Vision House since March 2008.

Her life came down to a choice: Die or change.

For the last six years, Susan Smith* had left her job as a cosmetologist each night, gone to her dope man and handed over $200 to $300 to feed the monster. That beast threatening to consume her life, the one she thought she'd vanquished 18 years earlier. Change of circumstances, one small temptation, and the monster had reared more powerful, and cast its massive shadow over her life.

The 48-year-old may not be the type of person you'd anticipate seeing in that particular pall. She grew up in a loving, educated family. She was a Girl Scout, her mom a troop leader. Her dad took her sailing to the Catalina islands.

AARON EISENHAUER ~ Diana Schlenk sets in a pew at Iona Baptist Church before the start of a Wednesday night prayer meeting.

She graduated from University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in social work. That's where she first began partying — college. Alcohol and then marijuana. The first time she freebased cocaine, she became addicted. After a year and a half, Susan went to rehab. She didn't use cocaine for the next 18 years, but continued to drink and smoke weed. At her 40th birthday party, a friend offered her cocaine.

"I thought that my addicted self could use it just one night. Well it used me for six years — even when I didn't want to use it," said Smith, who is a native of St. Louis and has lived in Cape Girardeau for three years. The older you get, the harder it is to quit, she says. She watched her neighbor die with a crack pipe in his hand. She went through treatment at the Family Counseling Center and has been clean for over two years now.

"I would see women older than me, in their 50s, in the treatment center and thought, 'If I mess up again I'm going to be like them.' I can't do it. Just can't," said Smith.

Between 2002 and 2006, the number of U.S. adults aged 50 to 54 who were current users of illicit drugs nearly doubled, according to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. That number, say national experts, will continue to grow as the Baby Boomer generation ages. Dana Branson, assistant program director for the Family Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau, said it's common to see women in their 40s and 50s who have a long career of substance abuse.

"We call them revolving-door clients," says Branson. They typically do very well in treatment and structure, but when they go back out in the world, they relapse, she explains. "Sometimes their relapse is part of their coping technique." The Family Counseling Center offers drug and alcohol abuse services to women and adolescents, including residential treatment from 30 to 120 days.

"We know that women have a lot of barriers to treatment and as someone ages, there are many factors that decrease chances of recovery," says Branson. "They think, half of my life is likely over and all I have to show for it is failure," says Branson. "There are a lot of psychological barriers for older people when it comes to recovery."

By the time you're 45, you've probably burned a lot of support bridges. There is a very good possibility that family and friends aren't involved anymore. The support addicts had when they were younger is no longer there, Branson explains.

"We treat addiction as a disease. It's chronic, it's progressive," she says. "It's not an issue of morality or ethics, it's simply a condition that requires treatment."

Diana Schlenk is homeless.

She gave up her 2-year-old son because she couldn't care for him. She doesn't have a job, used to sleep in her car. Spent some time in a women's prison in Vandalia, Mo. Abuse: Mental. Physical. Sexual. You name it, she's been through it. And it's abuse that landed her in most of those situations. But not the abuse of others. Abuse at her own hands. Alcohol and crack are her drugs of choice.

"But I've done others," says the 45-year-old St. Louis native. She came to Cape Girardeau in January because she couldn't stay away from the "people, places and things" that fueled her addictions. Now her home is the Vision House, a residential rehabilitation program for women in Cape Girardeau.

Schlenk began using drugs around age 12 and was pregnant by age 15. She couldn't keep a job because of her addictions. For 25 years she waited tables and bartended. The money went right to crack and getting high. That was the goal, she said.

Her first felony conviction was at age 37 for drug possession. While on probation, she was charged with possession again which landed her in a correctional facility in 2004. She kept using drugs. "It's a gradual, it's a progressive disease. It takes you and controls you. You feel like you have control, but you don't have it," she says. "When you live that life for so long, that's what you know."

Schlenk has been in and out of more treatment programs thaN she can count.

"I wasn't ready to stop. And sometimes I was ready to stop, but didn't know how," she says. "The last four years, I've been trying and trying."

Of 20.4 million Americans age 12 or older who said in the SAMSHA survey that they were drug users, 72.8 percent used marijuana.

Locally, those working with substance abuse addicts say problems stem not just from illicit drugs such as marijuana or methamphetamine, but also from alcohol and prescription medicines.

Dr. John Cooley, a substance abuse counselor in Jackson, says he's seen an increase in prescription abuse, especially of painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax. The National Library of Medicine reports people 65 and older consume more prescribed and over-the-counter medications than any other age group in the United States. Alcohol and prescription drug misuse affects as many as 17 percent of them.

While the number of older patients Cooley sees has not increased recently, he has found that one in two people seeking counseling have a substance abuse issue they may or may not talk about.

"Lots of people try to cover it up and keep it from family and friends and employers. Part of the illness is trying to keep it a secret," says Cooley. "We think of drug users as younger people but it can be anybody. It can be someone in their 60s or their 40s. It's really hard to tell."

Lynda Brooks started getting high when she was 13 years old. The now 42-year-old comes from a mentally abusive family and used drugs and alcohol as an escape. Eventually she started smoking crack.

"I'd get high and drink all the time. That's what we did. I'd go to work high," she said.

Brooks tried to get clean a few times, but usually went right back to using. She turned to prostitution. "I wasn't raised like that," she said. "But I did what I had to do to get what I wanted, what I felt I needed." While pregnant, she went into labor smoking crack. A divorce brought her to Cape Girardeau where she again tried to get clean. A relapse on the 4th of July got her back into drugs and alcohol. In March of this year, Brooks was desperate.

"I'd try anything to get sober," she said. She tried to get into different treatment programs, but was told the programs were full. "They tell you you're a burden on society, but they won't let you in."

Brooks found the Vision House by accident. Since she had been turned down by other programs before, she was just going to sit and wait in the parking lot until someone saw her. But instead she knocked on one of the doors, it opened and she was invited in.

"I said, 'I'm tired. I don't want to get high anymore,'" she says. Brooks has been sober for four months and continues to develop a relationship with a higher power. She says it's harder to get clean as you age, but she says she puts her faith in God and is learning to trust people again.

"I'm not ashamed. I want to help someone else," she says. "There are people out there that do love you, for real."


Nationally, substance abuse treatment programs saw a greater growth in patients aged 55-plus than any other demographic in 2002. Drug admissions among those age 55 and older increased by 106 percent for men and 119 percent for women between 1995 and 2002. The number of older adults in need of treatment is expected to double from the estimated 1.7 million in 2002 to 4.4 million in 2020, according to the SAMSHA.

Local statistics on drug abuse among the elderly are difficult to come by. This type of crime rarely comes to the attention of law enforcement. Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said he has not noted any upswing in local drug-related crimes involving the elderly. But national research shows older drug addicts are less likely to be caught.

People in that demographic are less likely to be arrested for driving under the influence, having a drug- or alcohol-related accident, or causing problems in the community. Since many are retired, there is little chance that drinking or drug abuse will affect their career, according to the SAMSHA. In other words, it's less noticeable.

National research has found that drug abuse among the elderly touches all demographics - low income and wealthy, rural, urban and suburban, white, black, Hispanic and Asian.

"Some girls are very educated and have just lost their way, some come from abuse," says Jason Wray, board member and volunteer for the Vision House.

Wray says the average age of the women in the Vision House program is late 30s to 40s. He says while the older women are more committed to treatment, it seems to be harder for them.

"It's a longer road to recovery, the older they are."

* Names have been changed to protect source's identity.

This article appeared in the August edition of The Best Years, the Southeast Missourian's monthly magazine for older adults, inserted into Monday's paper.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: