Hardships can turn seniors to alcohol, drugs

Ask anyone who attends a meeting of AA (Alcohol Anonymous) or NA (Narcotic Anonymous), the road to recovery from alcohol or drug addiction is often a bumpy and long one. Days, weeks, months and even years of sobriety can be set back by a relapse to a former life controlled by alcohol or drugs. If a person has a long history of addiction, the longer and harder it may be for their recovery.

Early intervention, as in most cases of disease recovery (such as in dealing with breast or prostate cancer), means a better chance for a successful recovery.

Too often, those who are addicted to alcohol or drugs as teenagers and young adults and who never break this addictive habit become serious substance abusers in the later years of their life. However, a growing number of seniors have become addicted later in life due to a variety of social, economic and cultural factors.

Many seniors may be faced with trauma because of the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or ill health. Depression, isolation, uselessness and loneliness set in. Behavioral, mental and physical health issues often emerge because of circumstances related to aging.

Unable to adequately cope under such stressful conditions, many seniors become alcohol and prescription drug dependent.

These are some of the topics which are addressed by a Human Services class at UAA on "Older Adults and Substance Abuse." This class has been offered by the Human Services Department, led by Dr. Laura Kelley, Chair, each fall for a number of years.

One addition to the class this year was a campus and community forum held on November 21. The topic was "Substance Abuse Treatment and Success Stories." An outstanding array of diverse panel members were on hand to describe their programs and services, including: David Williams, Anchorage Gospel Mission; Major Scott Nicloy, Salvation Army Clitheroe Center; Nicole Clarke-Frechette, Cook Inlet Ernie Turner Center; and Melinda Freemon, Homeward Bound and Karluk Manor. Plus, we heard personal, heart-rending success stories by four people who have benefited from participation in these substance abuse recovery programs.

What an informative time we had. Students sent out emails, posted fliers, invited classmates and friends. Over 80 people attended. Welcome remarks were brought by Dr. Jo Ann Bartley, on behalf of the Human Services Department. Polly Andrews, a Human Services class member, was an awesome Master of Ceremonies. She wove in comments after each presenter, including those who vividly told their very inspiring personal stories, with empathy and sensitivity.

Yes, we learned that despite personal hardships, which affect not only the abuser but also one's immediate and extended family, redemption and recovery is possible. Common threads presented included:

• the need for caring compassion and tough love;

• understanding the role of trauma in the life of the substance abuser;

• breaking the cycle of addiction, which often leads to severe economic, social, and family loss, requires motivation and hard work;

• the crucial role of harm reduction and housing first;

it is difficult to remain sober on one's own;

• finding peer support by attending AA and NA group meetings and the support of a sponsor;

• matching a substance abuser with a treatment program which is sensitive to their social and cultural backgrounds;

• positive life changes are possible when one turns to a higher power and adds a spiritual dimension to one's recovery;

• mental, physical, social and behavioral health issues all need to be addressed;

there is no quick fix for addiction and recovery;

• recovery and sobriety is a life long process.

Loud clapping was heard after each of the personal stories. It was as if everyone in the room wanted to thank, encourage and give hope to those who are on their road to recovery.

This successful campus and public forum was made possible not only by the UAA Human Services class, but also by the assistance and collaboration of Nez Danguilan, CEO and Videographer, Fil-Am Showtime; Rachel Epstein, Special Events Coordinator, UAA Bookstore; Amanda Murdock, Alcohol, Drug, and Wellness Educator, Dean of Students Office, UAA; Desiree Stiner, Parking Enforcement Supervisor, UAA Parking Services; and Gary Wells, Executive Director, Older Persons Action Group.

Major funding support for the forum was provided by The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Nancy Burke, Senior Program Officer.

A video of the forum is being prepared. For a copy of the video or other information about the forum, please contact Amanda Murdock, 786-1511.

Ray Clements, Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor at the UAA Human Services Department, and Older Adults and Substance Abuse instructor. Contact him at ray@ak.net.