The Silver Boom: Senior Substance Abuse Grows, Resources Lag

Mar 12, 2013

In less than 20 years, a quarter of the state’s population will be older than 60.  In a series we call “The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island,” we’re looking this week at how the state will take care of this expanding older population, and how it can benefit from it. Here’s an in-depth look at the growing problem of substance abuse and addiction among seniors, beginning at a community recovery center in Pawtucket.

Sam Bynum wasn’t born an alcoholic. But, like many alcoholics will tell you, the signs were there early on.

Sam Bynum at The Anchor Center in Pawtucket, RI.
Credit Felicia Lesnett / The Providence Center

“I remember as a young girl, probably five, standing in the backroom of my uncle’s bar. The aroma of stale beer that had permeated the walls was enticing to me. I loved it. I loved alcohol as soon as I could drink it.”

And she drank. At first, to feel a bit less awkward or uncomfortable. Then, after her seven-year-old son died in a car accident, she drank not to feel at all.

Anchor Community Recovery Center, downtown Pawtucket
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“After he passed away, I became a different person. And all I wanted to do was drink and drug because it hid the feelings.”

She remarried several times, hit the road with husband number three, and left her other son with her parents. By her mid-fifties, the drinking and drugs had made Bynum sick and poisoned her relationship with her son.

“I had done such damage to my son that he was living in Boston I would have to ask him if I could visit.”

But at age 57, she was ready for a change. She remembers raising her hand in a recovery meeting and admitting her problem for the first time.

“My name is Sam and I’m an alcoholic. And it was as if a backpack slid off my back and I was free.”

That was a decade ago. Bynum, with her wispy white hair and an electric smile, has been sober ever since.

“I’m as happy as I could possibly be. I am proud of myself for what I have accomplished.”

Today, she tries to help other seniors find the same happiness. She runs some recovery meetings herself. And she’s about to start a new group at a nearby senior center. Bynum says older people who abuse drugs or alcohol might especially need that connection to a group of peers.

“I find that some seniors – and I am one—have gone through this, of being isolated, away from their family, that their family just can’t stand it anymore. And the senior gets more into depression and that they don’t have their children anymore or family anymore. And I have been there.”

Daily schedule at the Anchor
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

In downtown Pawtucket, the Anchor community center is filling up. The noon Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is about to start, and people of all ages are greeting friends and settling into the rows of folding chairs. The Anchor offers all kinds of support for people in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. And they’re seeing more and more Rhode Islanders over the age of 60, like Sam Bynum.

Jim Gillen oversees recovery services for The Providence Center, which also oversees the Anchor Center. He says there are a couple of reasons for that increase.

“You know what’s happening is that people are aging out – the baby boomers or the war kids – they’re aging out. And if they have a lifetime of drug dependence or drug abuse including alcohol, now it’s become, as the body breaks down, you can only drink for so many years. It’s going to catch up to you at some point.”

The noon recovery meeting begins
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Prescription medications are another reason. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that over the past few years, the number of seniors taking at least one medication has risen to 90 percent. More than half take three. Drugs for anxiety and pain—like Oxycontin or Vicodin—are among the most frequently prescribed. And they’re some of the most addictive.

Holly Cekala helps run The Providence Center’s new drop-in recovery center in Warwick. She’s also a member of a state task force on elderly mental health that’s just recently started talking about elders and addiction. She says part of the issue is simply identifying the problem in seniors.

“A lot of times, primary care physicians will overlook a substance abuse issue in an elder because it’s not so forefront. There are a lot of other things going on. And typically the culture of the elders is we don’t talk about our issues that may devalue us in the community.”

Jim Gillen with The Providence Center's Sara Szeglowski.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Cekala says primary care doctors need more training in addiction. And her boss Jim Gillen agrees. In fact, he says, primary care doctors could help with another problem: connecting seniors with the help that’s out there but disconnected.

“OK, you’re in for primary health care. But now let’s talk about your mental health. Let’s talk about maybe your abuse of pain medications. So if it’s all there, you know, now let’s connect you with a recovery coach. So the services are there. It’s getting them intertwined. And that’s the hard part is really having some person or some agency as the thread.”

Federal data show that the number of seniors nationwide entering treatment for substance abuse has grown by 50 percent in the past few years. That number is steadily creeping up in Rhode Island, too. But the number of services specifically designed for seniors has declined. And Cekala says that’s a problem because seniors have some unique needs – physical or psychological – that could keep them from seeking treatment. They might have trouble getting around, or have other medical needs. She says that’s one reason the Anchor center started a phone service.

“Well, the telephone recovery support service that we provide here is available to people in our community. It allows people to get a call from somebody who really does care about how you’re doing. And if you’re maybe not ready to walk out the door, maybe the telephone recovery support will allow you to trust enough to take the step out the door and come on in and see us.”

Then, maybe, says Gillen, some seniors will begin to feel comfortable enough to venture out, and maybe try a recovery meeting.

“It’s a slow process but it’s about building trust. And that’s important with anyone but especially a senior population that for so long have lived in the shadows.”

Gillen expects the number of seniors dealing with substance abuse will expand as more baby boomers grow older and more prescription drugs fill up their medicine cabinets. And Rhode Island, he says, will need more treatment options, including sober housing, for this growing population.


Explore our series, The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island.