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"That was the era," says Evelyn, 56, an Odyssey House graduate and an addiction counselor there. "If the drugs hadn't been so available, I wouldn't have been apt to go looking for them."
As drug users mature, geriatric biology and life circumstances tend to tighten the drugs' hold. Reduced body mass, slower metabolism and less efficient kidneys and liver mean that the same quantity of drug hits harder and stays in the body longer. Older users who think they're keeping their doses fixed are thus, in effect, steadily increasing them. What's more, the loss of a spouse or job or merely the boredom of retirement could tip the nonuser into experimentation and the borderline user into full-blown addiction. Moses, 57, never touched heroin until 2001, when his wife died. But when he picked it up, he got hooked fast. "I missed my wife. I was lonely," he says. "I didn't want to live, but I didn't have the nerve to put a gun to my head."
For the seniors who do get clean--and the millions more who will need to in the years to come--there are a few factors that drive recovery. Seeing peers die of addiction certainly scares some straight. So too do late-life worries about the legacy one is going to leave. "You get to a point when you think about having a dignified end," says Jon Roberts, another Odyssey House veteran who is now a counselor. "You think about family reunification, about giving back through community service, about having spent your life as more than an addict."
It's rare for teenagers of any generation to think that far ahead, never mind the cohort that reached adolescence at the height of the drug boom. It may be impossible to slow the demographic conveyor belt that's going to dump so many of them into the senior population with a habit they picked up during their summers of love. But it's not too late for them to shake it off, achieving the peace in the last chapters of their lives that the drugs promised them in the first.