'Nothing but a Junkie'

Aging Today, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

'Nothing but a Junkie'


Aging and Addiction

"This criticism about, you know, you're nothing but a junkie, blah, blah, blah. That don't flirt with me. You know they're [drug addicts] human beings too. They're hurt. Because, they've been out there, and God knows how long they've been out there. So you need to show a lot more compassion"

Patricia, age 56, made this statement when Kyaien O. Conner interviewed her for a doctoral research study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. Titled '"You're Nothing But a Junkie': Multiple Experiences of Stigma in an Older Adult Methadone Population," the paper garnered Conner the American Society on Aging (ASA) Graduate Student Research Award at the association's recent conference in Chicago. The award is sponsored by the AARP Foundation.

EIGHT STIGMAS

Although previous research has recognized mental illness stigma as a barrier to treatment and recovery for drug addicts, Conner found that other stigmas also have an effect. In her study, 23 of the 24 participants experienced at least two stigmas, and most felt clouded by four or five. She interviewed clients ages 50 and older at a methadone maintenance clinic in a large Midwestern city. Among the study respondents, 58% were women, 58% were African American (the rest were white), and half had moderate to severe depression.

Conner identified eight stigmas that often deter older addicts from seeking or obtaining help. The highest percentage of those interviewed (79%) felt stigmatized by their addiction, but more than half (54%) also experienced the stigma of being older. Other commonly cited stigmas were due to taking psychotropic drugs, having depression, being on methadone, being poor, being of a certain race and having HIV. The most frequently mentioned double stigma was the combination of addiction and age, cited by 33% of respondents.

For example, Todd, age 54, avoided returning to mental health counseling after one meeting with a psychiatrist who "talked so fast I couldn't understand her to start with, and I told her to slow down." He went on, "It was as obvious as the nose on my face, OK.... This woman wanted me out of her office. She was all made up with her legs crossed and her nylons with all her stuff on the wall.... She wasn't used to an old guy like me, an old street bum, you know."

ADDICTION AND AGE

Conner found, ' 'Respondents perceived more stigma attached to being an old drug user than ayoung drug user." Mali, age 60, remarked, "Go back to being a plain ole junkie anymore? It's over, it's over. That's it. I'm too old for that kind of thing. I look stupid, you know, I don't know what's going on 'cause I don't hear well. I can't see well. There's this old granny out there trying to get drugs. OK, sure!"

William, age 52, spoke of how drug counselors perceive older drug addicts: "They be thinking too much. Wondering where my future is going. You know, they see I'm over 50 years old. Where is my life going? What am I going to do when I get even older? Am I still going to be on drugs?"

Conner discovered that study participants who reported experiencing the multiple stigmas of drug addiction, being on methadone treatment and aging "discussed not wanting to seek drug rehabilitation services due to their perception of being stigmatized by other addicts and by the staff at these facilities. Respondents were afraid of how they would be perceived as an older addict in a drug treatment setting," she said. …

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