10 Jan 2010

Dawn of the ‘geriaddicts’ drug users

The government says use of heroin and crack, the two most addictive drugs out there, is shifting from the young to the old.

It seems young addicts are turning away from the opiates and crack cocaine they saw their parents use in the 80s.

But many addicts in their fifties, sixties and seventies are entering their second or third decades on heroin and crack, and developing acute health problems. Experts are calling this the “dawn of the geriaddicts”.

Barbara has lived a life on heroin and managed to make it to 55. But trying to get off drugs has not got easier with age. Since Barbara’s mother died, heroin has filled the hole. Bereavement, loneliness and boredom have pulled her back to drugs.

“I need something feeding my brain. As funny as it sounds, getting up to go out and get drugs makes me function. I feel totally dysfunctional at present. I’m searching for something to do, but it’s difficult because my health’s not that good.”

Ageing heroin addicts often have chronic health problems, but unlike younger addicts, they are less likely to overdose, so they can disappear under the radar. Many of Barbara’s friends have never been anywhere near treatment services. So they are a hidden population.

But the government does keep figures on the number of people who do come forward for treatment. A look at the data from the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse shows that the number of over-fifties asking for help is rising.

In 2005/2006, 6,656 over-fifties were being treated for addiction to heroin, or crack cocaine. By last year that number was 9,981 รข?? a rise of 50 per cent in four years.

At the Wakefield Integrated Substance Misuse Service, where Barbara is being treated, they have got hundreds of patients in their forties, fifties and sixties. The oldest is 74.

It has found the detox programmes the government is so keen on can be unsuitable for older people, who may want more private, less structured help. The Wakefield service insists it is not abandoning older patients to addiction, but the reality is their journeys towards abstinence might take longer, and have smaller goals along the way.

In Merseyside, where heroin first took hold in the 1980s, many older addicts who took heroin 20 years ago are still in its grip. The Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University has just done the first research into the lives of older addicts. It found a group of people who had been in and out of treatment services for years, with no success. The addicts told researchers they fell back on drugs in times of stress, like bereavement or redundancy.

The Liverpool study is sceptical about how relevant the government’s recovery agenda is to older addicts. It argues the attempt to get pensioners into detox and out the other side into work and society may not be realistic, because their health might be failing, and they do not have any family to support them.

In response the National Treatment Agency says we should not deny older people the chance to get clean and we should give them the same opportunities as younger addicts. But the agency says it does realise addicts who have been taking drugs for 20 or 30 years will take longer to kick them, and may need to stay in treatment well into their sixties and seventies.

At the moment Barbara says she cannot imagine giving up heroin. And the longer she takes drugs, the worse her health gets. Academics and doctors are warning Barbara is the tip of a clinical iceberg of older addicts who will inevitably making increasing demands on the NHS and social services.