Associated Press March 20, 2006
BLOOMFIELD – Mike Walls never envisioned his golden years as a fight with drug addiction when a friend gave him a plastic bag of white crystal powder and a promise of youth nearly two decades ago.
A cross-country truck driver, he was almost 40 and feeling fatigued when he sniffed methamphetamine from a dusted toothpick at a truck stop, hoping he could drive all night.
“It seemed like I didn’t want to face the fact that I was getting older,” Walls said, running his fingertips through a strawberry red goatee streaked with silver.
At 55, with rotten teeth, frayed nerves and high blood pressure – all brought on by meth – Walls is one of a growing number of baby boomers struggling with addiction to the stimulant and seeking help after living with it through middle age.
Nationwide, the number of people age 55 and older seeking treatment for meth has increased 15-fold since 1992, according to federal statistics. The spike has left drug counselors, already reeling from treating a rush of younger addicts, grasping for guidance.
Ronald Hunsicker, president of the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, said older meth addicts remain an uncharted group.
“Because of the way that we tend to pigeonhole or stereotype older adults, we don’t think that they will have access to methamphetamines,” said Hunsicker, whose group plans to discuss older addicts at its annual conference in Florida in May. “The contrary seems to be true.”
Meth addiction has jumped cultural gaps before, moving from rural settings to urban backdrops. While meth has been used most by people between 18 and 25, according to federal surveys, its abuse among older populations is rising.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Washington, D.C., which tracks national drug trends, found the number of people older than 55 seeking treatment for meth addiction rose from 44 in 1992 to 693 in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Leah Young, spokeswoman for the agency, said that is only a fraction of the total seeking treatment for meth addiction nationwide – about 136,000 people in 2003, according to federal estimates.
“The number is so small at this point that I don’t think anyone can do any analysis on them,” Young said.
Counselors insist even slight increases among older populations can be problematic.
Meth can cause rotten teeth, rapid weight loss and hallucinations among users of any age.
But the effects of addiction can be worse with age, causing high blood pressure, hypertension and a risk of heart attack.
Prolonged use can lead to kidney disorders, liver or brain damage, depression and malnutrition, said Dr. Barbara Krantz, who helps run the Hanley Center, which offers drug treatment in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“Chemical dependency is a brain disease. It doesn’t matter how old you are,” Krantz said.
The cost of treating people for meth addiction also can increase with age. Because of years of addiction – and deep-seated habits – people older than 55 chance being in treatment longer.
At the Greene County Rehabilitation Center in Bloomfield, the first stage of treatment costs $600 a month, which pays for room and board and lasts until a person is healthy enough to leave. It does not include medical bills. The second phase, which Walls is in, runs $155 a week. Recovering addicts leave during the day to work but return each night for more counseling.
A final phase, designed to help recovered addicts remain clean, is free.
Gus Mathias, who manages the Greene County center and one other in Indiana, has seen meth ravage young addicts. What he has seen among older clients is worse.
“Methamphetamine is hard on young people. You lose a lot of weight. Your teeth fall out. You hallucinate. But when you start to get older, it happens much faster,” he said. “I’ve got any number of people that come in looking tragic.”
Walls is a perfect example, Mathias said.
After being caught making meth in a farm field seven months ago, Walls arrived for court-ordered treatment 30 pounds underweight and jittery.
Well into his treatment, the father of three now works at his own auto shop before heading home to the rehabilitation center in Bloomfield.
His blood pressure has fallen and his once-sunken cheeks have filled out. He attends regular counseling sessions at the center to learn about the triggers of addiction.
He waits, hoping the craving subsides a little more each day.
Younger meth addicts turn to him for help when they arrive. He’s a grandfather figure they pepper with questions, asking how he finally got clean. Walls wishes he could give them answers, but he can’t. Not yet. There’s so much farther to go.
What’s ahead: The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers plans to give counselors guidance on treating aging meth addicts at its annual conference this May in