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Heroin Addiction in Older Adults on the Rise
April 19, 2015

By Keshia Clukey

At 56 years old, Dan Pirrone was using more than 20 bags of heroin a day.

His veins were black and he was estranged from much of his family, including his two children.

At an age when most baby boomers are planning for retirement, the Rotterdam native was blowing through his savings and taking any job he could to support his $3,000-a-month habit.

"It was a feeling of relief from the pain, of any kind of pain emotional, physical, psychological," Pirrone said.

The growing heroin epidemic is seen as predominantly targeting suburban youth, but older people can fall prey as well.

Nationally, the number of deaths involving heroin for those age 45 to 64 has nearly quintupled from 516 in 2000 to 2,459 in 2013, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Due to the advances in medical technology, people are living longer and require medication as the body starts to deteriorate, said Nicole MacFarland, executive director of Senior Hope, a nonprofit outpatient clinic in Albany.

"What initially becomes a way of managing that pain can, over time, leads them to needing more of the painkiller," she said. "Their body develops a tolerance and, lo and behold, they wind up becoming very addicted."

When painkillers aren't enough, some turn to heroin.

The number of patients at Senior Hope whose main addiction was heroin jumped from six in 2012 to 11 in 2013, and then to 17 in 2014, a year when 155 patients were served. The clinic also saw an increase in addictions to other opiates such as OxyContin.

"A lot, it appears, have reached a point in their lives where they know if they don't turn it around at this point in time ... this might be their last chance," MacFarland said.

Older adults typically grew up with a stigma around mental illness and addiction, so getting them through the door can be challenging, MacFarland said. They also don't usually have the legal system pushing them into treatment as most young adults do, she said.

Older adults can still need pain medication for ailments, so weaning from an opiate addiction can be complicated, she said. In contrast to other treatment programs, Senior Hope clients may require certain accommodations for poor eyesight or mobility issues, for example.

They also can have health problems stemming from their longtime addiction to drugs or alcohol, for example, having contracted HIV or hepatitis C through needle use.

Pirrone, now 58, has been clean for one year, one month and six days, and still can't figure out why he's still alive.

"I'm lucky I'm not dead or in prison," the Niskayuna resident said.

Pirrone began smoking marijuana and experimenting with hallucinogens in ninth grade to cover the pain of childhood trauma, he said. By age 17, he had dropped out of school and hitchhiked to Florida. He later moved to California where, for the next 20 years, his addiction progressed to cocaine, opioids and eventually heroin.

He hid from his family and didn't help raise his son or daughter.

"Basically, what you do is run away from yourself. You're an empty shell," Pirrone said.

He moved back to New York state in 1998. In 2008, after a critical methadone overdose landed him in the hospital for nine days, he decided it was time to change.

He joined Senior Hope, counseling and support groups. He stayed clean for four years, got a job, paid off tax debt and child support. He had extra income from selling hydrocodone, prescribed to him after an accident while he lived in California.

In 2012, Pirrone's primary care doctor retired, and his new physician required testing to ensure he was actually taking the prescribed pain medication.

Pirrone once again started using the hydrocodone and it didn't take long to get back to his old go-to, heroin.

"These drug dealers from downstate would say, 'Make sure you take care of the old man,' because I used to buy so much," Pirrone said. "They considered me the old man."

He overdosed, but kept using. In March 2013, he was arrested and charged with felony possession of crack cocaine and heroin. Choosing between jail and treatment, Pirrone went back to Senior Hope.

Having others his age in treatment at Senior Hope gave Pirrone a network of support with like-minded people, he said.

Along with his counseling sessions, he also is part of step programs and has sponsors who help him from straying.

Pirrone is reconnecting with his family and children, and holds down several jobs.

"I feel like I'm headed in the right direction," he said,

Still, addiction is a daily battle, and he regrets not getting help sooner.

"If I were to get this when I was younger, I'd be much better off. I'd have my kids in my life, I would have a chance," he said. "That's all there is is jails, institutions and death when you use. It's a no win, dead-end situatiion."

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