Few people know the perils of drug abuse better than a 55-year-old former schoolteacher whose job it used to be to teach that very topic--which is why it's particularly ironic that she's a cocaine addict today. More than 30 years ago, Gwen--who prefers to keep it to one name when discussing her addiction--spent her days teaching in the Virginia school system and drafting the schools' drug-and-alcohol-abuse curriculum. She spent her nights researching the subject firsthand.
"I started using alcohol and pot in college," she says. "Then I turned to sniffing cocaine and freebasing. By the time I began teaching, I was spending big-time money. My body knew that I got out of school at 3:30 every day, and then I'd have to go out and get my drugs."
Today Gwen spends most of her time far from Virginia, living in New York City and attending regular sobriety meetings in the Odyssey House ElderCare treatment program in East Harlem. It's not how she envisioned her retirement. "I never thought the drug-abuse classes I taught applied to me," she says. "But here I am."
She's hardly alone. Of the more than 75 million baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, millions experimented with drugs during their impressionable teenage years, and millions went on to enter middle age--and are now headed into their senior years--with decades-long addictions. Hard numbers are not easy to come by, but older addicts are clearly a growth sector in the drug-recovery industry. There are an estimated 1.7 million Americans over age 50 addicted to drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. By 2020 SAMHSA expects the number to reach 4.4 million. Already an ongoing federal study has found that the number of older Americans seeking help for heroin or cocaine abuse roughly quadrupled from 1992 to 2002. Odyssey House, which was founded to treat younger addicts, now has a separate division, with both inpatient and outpatient facilities, to deal specifically with older users.
What makes the problem especially hard for seniors is that the wages of drug abuse are cumulative. A lifetime of recreational chemistry also means a lifetime of neglect of overall health--as a recent morning meeting at Odyssey House illustrated. There were too many canes in evidence for a group so comparatively young--the legacy of joints wrecked by years of undertreated diabetes--and too many bad hearts and bum livers and vascular systems fighting hypertension. "This is the first generation to have a high incidence of using recreational drugs," says SAMHSA epidemiologist Joseph Gfroerer. "All this puts them at risk for problems."