›› Finding a Passion in Older Adult Addiction Treatment

        by Carol Colleran

Becoming an addiction professional wasn’t something I dreamed about or even considered for much of my adult life. Through recovery, tragedy and promises I made, the profession chose me. Since that time 21 years ago, it has completely changed my life and assumptions. A job became a passion because I found I could make a difference in the lives of older adults and their families.

Most addiction professionals I know are either in recovery from some type of addiction or have been personally touched by it. The same was true for me. In 2007, I’ll have 25 years of sobriety. But in the 1970’s, as a wife, mother of four and co-partner in a lumber business and later a custom home building business, I didn’t consider my drinking a problem, even as our businesses and my marriage failed. In fact, my husband and I thought we could control our serious drinking; mine was just beer, after all.

By the time my husband and I had separated for good, I had to negotiate with the bank to keep a roof over the children’s and my heads. When I finally faced my addiction and went into treatment, I knew I’d have to work hard at this, too; there was too much at stake. I didn’t know how soon that challenge would come, when my daughter Cathy, a young college graduate, was diagnosed in 1984 with advanced ovarian cancer. I had to stay sober for her, and was thankful that at least I could totally be there with her in her last months.

With a wisdom and insight far beyond her years, Cathy asked me to promise her something. Of course I’d promise her anything at that moment.

She said that she felt I had a calling and a purpose, and it had to do with becoming an addiction counselor. She asked me to promise to go back to school for training and certification. I reluctantly made that promise, and when Cathy died in 1986, I had to keep it. Counselor training was full time; I worked part time as a bookkeeper as well.

I became certified at Hazelden and found this was, in fact, my calling. I practiced the Twelve Step philosophy in my own life and believed in holistic treatment and the promise of recovery. I was fortunate to become a counselor at Hazelden, and in 1991, Hanley Center, (then Hanley-Hazelden), offered me the position of clinical director.

Hanley Center, West Palm Beach, Florida, attracts many older adult patients. I quickly realized that older adults really needed their own separate treatment program - including housing. They were focusing on the younger patients, almost parenting them, instead of on themselves. There were multiple factors: older adults consider addiction immoral, especially to illicit drugs. They resist airing their “dirty laundry,” and feel people should be able to handle their own problems. Being in treatment with younger “drug” addicts was uncomfortable. Sharing life stories and therapy with one’s peer group felt “safer,” as was a cozy, homelike residence.

We found that older adults also need longer detox and primary treatment periods due to factors like complex medical conditions, co-occurring disorders and cognitive difficulties. A holistic program that encompasses spirituality, wellness, medical and physical treatment and psychological therapy addresses these.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of my career was participating in the development of Hanley Center’s pioneering Center for Older Adult Recovery. Now we know that while older adults usually resist treatment, they recover with greater success, following quality age-responsive treatment, than other age groups.

The older adult program at Hanley Center continues to evolve to address the older baby boomers, and I’ve found that my profession isn’t separate from my life itself. When I discovered a decade ago that older adult addiction is mostly hidden, misdiagnosed and ignored, I decided this was a crusade worth fighting for. I decided to expose this Silent Epidemic to consumers and in professional arenas wherever I could. Do we care enough about our parents and loved ones to help prevent late onset addiction, and bring the hope of recovery to older adults addicted to medications and alcohol? Educated people and organizations can make choices and take action.

My daughter, Cathy, would be amazed to see her mother quoted as an “expert” on addiction, and that at age 70, is preparing for a teaching trip to China. It’s not just a job.


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