December 21, 2011

USA: During holidays, pain multiplies for Chicago's elderly addicts

CHICAGO, Illinois / Chicago Tribune / Chicagoland / December 21, 2011

Silent night, lonely night

George Simms, 59, who has been sober for 13 years, sorts and prices household items at a Salvation Army Family Store and Donation Center in Chicago. He extends an open invitation to older addicts to the Christmas Day party at the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center, 2258 N. Clybourn Ave.  Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune

By Amanda Marrazzo, Special to the Tribune

The holidays can be a wondrous time for many, but for isolated, older adults, it can be painful, especially those who are dealing with drug or alcohol addiction

Jerry, 63, of Chicago, knows the pain that isolation and drugs can bring. This Christmas, Jerry believes, will be the first in 15 years when he won't be self-medicated with prescription pain pills or an illicit street drug. 

Jerry, who asked that his last name not be published, recently entered an addiction treatment program at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, in Chicago. He said he began self-medicating after the death of his wife. 

"I just carried a lot of guilt with me for a lot of years, and I continued to medicate it," he said. "The holidays ... it's lonely, a lot of memories, both good and bad, mostly good. ... It's just sad times." 

Jerry said he has children and grandchildren, but because of his addictions he doesn't see them much and likely won't see them for Christmas

"It gets harder as you get older," Jerry said. "There have been a lot of past disappointments over the years. I've sabotaged quite a few relationships." 

An estimated 17 percent of adults 60 and older meet the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse or substance dependence, said Fran Schnadig, a program coordinator at PEER Services Inc. in Evanston and Glenview. The rate is higher than for younger adults, said Schnadig, who coordinates a treatment program for adults and older adults. 

"It's an invisible problem with older adults, because older adults don't tend to ask for help; they feel ashamed," Schnadig said. 

Furthermore, family members, some doctors and some older adults can confuse symptoms of substance abuse with symptoms of aging, such as memory problems, balance problems, depression and not eating right, she said. 

High, often unattainable expectations around the holidays inflame the addiction, said Sandra Scheinbaum, licensed clinical psychologist and nutrition coach in Highland Park. 

"It's supposed to be a time to be joyous, to be celebrated, and many older people tell me they do not have the joy in the holidays anymore," Scheinbaum said. 

Many older people struggle with loneliness due to retirement, loss of contact with grown children, or the deaths of spouses, friends and relatives. Many have injuries keeping them from holiday parties. Some may have had health problems or injuries that make it difficult to cook and decorate for the holidays, so they just don't do it. 

The elderly also remember wonderful memories of holidays and are unable to create those types of holidays. This sadness takes them further into isolation, and they often will turn to alcohol to mask this, Scheinbaum said. 

"Holidays intensify feelings of loss. ... A widow is going to feel that loss more acutely during the holiday," Scheinbaum said. 

George Simms, 59, of Chicago, knows that kind of loneliness and the heaviness of the holidays on someone with an addiction. 

Simms, sober 13 years, helps others in recovery. He said he drank "anything and everything" to escape his pain. He said the holidays are worse for the older addict and alcoholic because the season magnifies the loneliness. 

"Some don't have that many loved ones left," Simms said. "We get depressed and frustrated. We can't afford what we used to and cannot give people what we used to give them. ... We get embarrassed." 

To get through the holidays sober, Simms joins others in recovery who double up on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and look upon sobriety as their greatest gift. 

"I found a new family" in recovery, Simms said. "Fellowship keeps us strong." 

Because the elderly often find the holidays especially difficult, family, neighbors, postal workers and service providers are encouraged to be more vigilant. 

"Reach out to the neighbor that you know who lives down the block that doesn't have visitors and isn't connected in any way to the community," said Joyce Gallagher, executive director of the Senior Services Area Agency on Aging/Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. 

Simms said this Christmas he'll be at a party at the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center, 2258 N. Clybourn Ave. He invites anyone struggling with an addiction to join him. 

Simms promises, "All you've got to do is walk through the door, and we are going to welcome you with open arms."

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune
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