When we think of people in the grip of addiction and of those in recovery from addiction, we often imagine the young, with much of their lives ahead of them. We might also think about folks a little older, perhaps those with children who suffer the consequences of a parent’s addiction. But we don’t generally consider the senior addict. A senior addict’s journey to sobriety offers unique challenges.
At 12-step and other addiction recovery meetings in the Cleveland area, silver- and grey-haired attendees are a common sight. Many share stories of rollicking times in their youth — twenties for many and teens for some—times that spiraled out of control and led to the “rock bottom” crisis and a mid-adulthood effort to gain sobriety. As senior members of the group, they often receive enthusiastic rounds of applause, collecting sobriety anniversary chips for periods of continuous sobriety measured in decades.
But the senior addict who deals with getting sober later in life struggles to accumulate those anniversary chips. Daniel Lettenberger-Klein, the executive director of local treatment center Stella Maris, says that aspects of the social world of older people may present special challenges to staying abstinent. “Very often, with an older generation, there has been socially-sanctioned behavior around drinking. People 60 and older kind of grew up in the age of the professional dinner”, where drinking was not only acceptable but expected. Old habits die hard, especially habits that an individual has long associated with professional success.
The flipside for members of the “drink to succeed” culture is that getting sober often comes at a cost. When they resist the social pressure to imbibe, they can get set up for feelings of isolation. Just when they need companionship the most, they find friends and colleagues drifting away.
Not every senior addict fits the “drink to succeed” mold, of course. Addiction may start later in life and for different reasons. “For me, it was a little unusual,” says Joe, a man from the east side who responded to my request for stories of getting sober at an older age on a Facebook group posting. “I started drinking in my late 50s because I had an emotional upset. I found my father dead, and it disturbed me because we were very close. “
On top of this sad event, the situation in Joe’s family meant that he had to assume responsibility for two other family members. “I started drinking to deal with it, and I drank real heavily until I had to check myself into rehab – I think I got sober in my early 60s,” he continues.
Joe’s years of drinking weren’t filled with colorful frat parties, nor was he affected by the need to drink socially to advance his career. His struggle for sobriety was typical in terms of craving and obsession for alcohol: “I just couldn’t seem to have the cravings go away.” He says that getting through detox and then getting through the first year sober were his biggest challenges; he tackled them by going to meetings – AA, Refuge Recovery and SMART Recovery – every day during a year that he didn’t have to work. Joe can attest to the loss of companionship that so many recovering addicts experience, as well. “I had one friend I had to let go of due to pressure, he relates.
There’s also a rarely-considered medical aspect to recovery for seniors. Lettenberger-Klein explains that the detox process can be “exceptionally complicated” when older patients have accumulated a lifetime’s risks for heart disease, respiratory problems, and a host of other hazards that are far less common in younger cohorts. So while older addicts must deal with all of the attendant miseries of withdrawal, they also have to cope with assorted health issues associated with age.
In an influential body of work that the psychologist Erik Erikson wrote during the twentieth century, Erikson shows how the lifespan can be understood as a series of life stages where most people spend childhood, adolescence and youth gaining the skills to navigate our complex world, then busy themselves during adulthood trying to make some impact on society. Erikson then explains the last phase of life, self-integration, as one in which older people can reflect on life experiences and develop a sense of wholeness and well being based on a life well-lived.
Perhaps a late-life struggle with addiction presents older adults with an unexpected challenge in this process, but successful recovery can lead to greater life satisfaction, in the end. Joe confirms that in spite of challenges like social pressure to drink and few role models of adults who got sober later in life, he feels “freer” today. He says he’s glad he went through it all, especially considering “I’d probably be dead” if he hadn’t.
For more information about Stella Maris and other local recovery resources, please check the links below:
Stella Maris | 1320 Washington Avenue Cleveland, Ohio 44113, Phone: (216) 781-0550, Toll-Free: (833) 315-5841
Alcoholics Anonymous | 1557 St. Clair Ave NE, Cleveland OH 44114, (800) 835-1935, (216) 241-7387