Golden Daze: Drug Problems Persist for Flower Power Retirees
They may be getting older, but they haven't outgrown their drug problems. German health workers are reporting a spike in the number of elderly addicts as a generation of baby boomers reaches retirement age. But the healthcare system isn't prepared to handle them.
The man remained completely calm as the police broke down the door of his apartment in the western German city of Dortmund. But when you're pushing 70, it takes a lot to get upset. Then again, it might have had something to do with the drugs.
An official says that the man the local press dubbed "Opium Opa," or "Grandpa Opium," was very cooperative during his arrest. The poppy-pushing pensioner had been exposed to police by an informant with the codename "Hildegart." The source claims that, in the summer of 2010, the geriatric dealer had said, "You want opium? No problem," before offering 20 grams for 250 ($320 for 0.7 ounces).
When he was brought before a judge, the accused denied all allegations. He stoically supported his massive frame on a cane both then and when the judge sentenced him to two years' probation. "This is the kind of story that one only sees in old movies," the judge said, shaking his head.
In reality, the problem is worse than it has ever has been. The number of retirement-aged individuals either consuming or selling illegal drugs continues to increase in Germany. A decade ago, there were only 74 drug-related legal proceedings involving people over 60 in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the most heavily populated of Germany's 16 federal states. Today, the figure is 177.
Among them was the case of a 71-year-old pensioner police arrested for selling marijuana to youths in a Cologne park -- and not for the first time, police stressed. There was also the case of the 73-year-old from Duisburg who ended up eating too many hash cookies. When he telephoned for help, the doctor reportedly said, "Take a valium. It'll help."
Flower Power, Free Love and Drugs
The thought of grandpas smoking joints and grandmas tripping on acid may seem absurd, but it's an increasingly frequent occurrence. For the first time, a generation of people who grew up within -- and perhaps even promoted -- the liberal drug culture is reaching retirement age. These are people who were in their mid-20s at the end of the 1960s, in the era of flower power, free love and psychoactive drug experimentation.
The idols of that era flaunted their consumption of illicit substances. The songs of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the like are full of allusions to drug use. If they survived, the heroes of that age are now approaching retirement age, though some haven't altered their youthful ways. For example, in 2006, intoxicated Rolling Stones member Keith Richards fell from a palm tree. In 2010, American country music legend Willie Nelson was once again arrested for possession of marijuana. He was 77.
But rock stars aren't the only people getting old. In fact, drug addicts in Germany are living longer thanks to replacement therapies using substances like methadone. Whereas most of them used to die young, now many addicts live well past their forties, though their bodies often look like they belong to people much older.
Efforts to Help Older Addicts Begin
"One can't just put these people in a retirement home," says Mechthild Dyckmans, Germany's federal drug commissioner. "There are already pilot projects, for example, ones for setting up shared accommodations. But we're still just getting started on this issue."
Dyckmans has announced that the German government is making addiction among the elderly a focus of its new national strategy for drug and addiction policies. The new plan will be presented in 2012, replacing the one that has been in force since 2003.
According to Dyckmans, experts have concluded that roughly 400,000 people in Germany over 60 drink too much, and that 14 percent of people being cared for as outpatients or within elderly care facilities are addicted to alcohol or medications. "Given the steady aging of our society, the absolute number of those affected will continue to rise," Dyckmans says. "Accordingly, we must put more of a public focus on elderly addiction and support healthcare workers."
Among the most dangerous substances are sleep aids and sedatives, which are known to cause an above-average number of falls and other injuries among older people. When such medications are combined with alcohol, Dyckmans explains, it heightens their potency and raises the danger of addiction. "I know of cases in which patients are taking 15 different medications all at once every day," she says. "That isn't always the right thing to do, and it can also have damaging effects."
Gaby Schnell, the head of an umbrella organization for senior-citizen interest groups in NRW, has long been observing demographic changes related to addiction. "The fact that more and more older people are taking illegal drugs is a new development from recent years," Schnell says. Until now, she continues, elderly addiction has earned little attention and has often gone unrecognized. In 2010, this led Germany's Health Ministry to pledge its support to eight pilot projects aimed at "sensitizing and training specialists in aiding elderly addicts."
One of them is called "Sucht im Alter," or "Addiction in Old Age," and is based in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. There, Anne Röhm and her colleagues teach workers in doctors' offices, retirement homes and in-home care services how to handle older patients with addiction problems. Röhm says she is happy "that the projects have been launched at all," even if things have been sluggish so far. The programs have to pressure nursing staff and physicians to point out that elderly addiction is a growing problem, she says.
Old at 40
Peter Raiser, a project leader at the German Center for Addiction Issues (DHS), has seen a clear increase in the age of people addicted to opiates. For example, he says it is frequently easy to determine that people over 40 who have been heavy consumers of drugs have aged prematurely. When somebody has been taking hard drugs for 20 years, he explains, they are already old at 40. In 2000, only some 8 percent of the opium addicts in treatment were over 40. Seven years later, that figure had shot up to almost 22 percent, and it has been rising ever since.
The pilot projects mark beginning efforts to reverse this trend, but the question is whether they will be enough. "An entire generation is coming for whom addiction will be a major problem in their old age," says Gaby Schnell from the NRW umbrella group.
Police will also have to devote additional resources to looking after older individuals either consuming or dealing illegal drugs. Take the example of the 50-year-old man from the western city of Solingen who both used and sold hard drugs. Together with his 85-year-old mother, the man was dealing heroin and cocaine by the kilo to finance his own addiction. After an investigation lasting months, police arrested the grandmother, her son and her grandson. Officers found three kilos of heroin, some cocaine and two firearms in the apartment of the family business. Police had dubbed the investigation "Special Operation Pension."
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