Miércoles 27 de Junio de 2007, Ip nº 196

Number of drug-addicted seniors to surge as boomers retire
Mavis Becker was a little early to the psychedelic Sixties. In the mid-Fifties, at the tender age of 14, she started smoking pot. Within a decade, most of her friends were taking Timothy Leary's advice to turn on, tune in and toke up.

Not much has changed since.

Ms. Becker may be a little older and a little greyer, but she still enjoys a good joint on the balcony of her home in Burnaby, B.C. She sometimes even shares one with her 93-year-old father, who suffers from dementia and diabetes. "I find that if I share a joint with him he tends to relax and go to bed quietly," Ms. Becker said.

As the baby-boom generation limps into old age, they're bringing hippie-era drug habits with them.

"There's so many of us you wouldn't believe it," Ms. Becker said of seniors on drugs. "My friends are pretty much all like me."

The population of Canadians aged 65 to 74 will nearly double from 4.3 million to eight million by 2026, according to Statistics Canada. Some 600,000 older Canadians reported abusing alcohol or drugs in a recent study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, and that number is set to swell as a wave of oldsters weaned on Woodstock and tie-dye hits retirement age.

The spectre of old-age homes filling with pot smokers and crack heads is daunting for the scant few organizations in the country devoted to treating addictions among seniors.

"We're seeing a huge jump," said Marilyn White-Campbell, who works with addicted seniors through Ontario's Community Outreach Programs in Addictions. "It used to be just alcohol was a problem. Now we're seeing seniors using marijuana, heroin, crack cocaine, OxyContin. There's even quite a few on methadone maintenance. I'd only seen three of those in the previous 20 years."

The bump in older drug users is mainly a function of demographics. The oldest baby boomer today would have been the impressionable age of 21 during the hash-infused Summer of Love. Nearly one in three baby boomers has smoked pot at some point in their lives, according to the CCSA survey.

The infirmities and isolation of age also play a role. Some seniors start using recreational drugs as a way of coping with physical ailments or the anguish of losing loved ones.

But the guiltless high that many seniors remember from their youth now has consequences. Even once they've kicked a drug habit, the effects can linger for up to a year.

"The problem is their bodies are less able to handle the drug," said Charmaine Spencer, a researcher with the Gerontology Research Centre at Simon Fraser University. "So they are more likely to end up with a drug overdose, or in hospital, or end up dying."

Even the most benign of street drugs can create problems with age. Seniors who've been smoking pot heavily for decades are appearing in homes and doctors' offices with a form of frontal-lobe dementia, COPA's Ms. White-Campbell said. For long-term cocaine users, those effects can strike in their 50s.

Despite the rapid growth in elderly drug addiction, the problem has gone largely unrecognized. Across Canada, barely 10 organizations deal with issues of drug abuse among seniors, and all are based in major cities.

"We have next to nothing on the prevention side available," Ms. Spencer said. "If they develop a problem, the resources in most communities currently are not there."

Among younger people, harm reduction has become the prevailing method of drug-abuse treatment in many Canadian cities. That attitude, which focuses on safer using rather than kicking the habit, is slowly working into treatment of the elderly as well.

But that approach can create a problem when seniors enter hospitals and old-age homes, where residents are not allowed to smoke cigarettes, much less spark a joint.

Ms. Becker, the pot smoker, once worked in a nursing home and saw firsthand the staff's difficulties dealing with drug users.

"I did have an old lady there who smoked pot but it was so frowned on," Ms. Becker said. "Her son used to take her on a little drive and when she came back she was much more relaxed and happy."

Before baby boomers start inundating old-age homes, more has to be done to recognize and accommodate their drug habits, say those who work with senior users. "This has largely remained invisible in older adults," Ms. Spencer said. "Drug use is not limited to young people. Older people are deserving of help."

Some older Canadians may be looking for a different kind of help.

"I hope my grandchildren are willing to roll me a doobie," Ms. Becker said, "if my arthritis gets too bad."

  14/06/2007. The Globe and Mail.