For seniors, treatment is never too late

Innovative East Harriet chemical-dependency program helps problem drinkers give up the bottle and remain independent

For the last month, Walter has attended the Walker Methodist Health Center's Chemical Dependency Program. "It's too early to say if it's totally beneficial," said Walter.

This is not the first time in treatment for the 74-year-old - but this time his independence hinges on it.

The Northeast Minneapolis resident said a Hennepin County court ordered him to seek treatment, after the county welfare officials intervened when he had difficulty paying his utility bills.

To comply, he agreed to stay in a Walker residence, 3737 Bryant Ave. S., during treatment. He said his goal is to recover, maybe join an Alcoholics Anonymous support group and go back home.

In October, the East Harriet-based health provider opened up its program to non-Walker-residents 55 and over, such as Walter (not his real name).

Walker Director of Chemical Health Stephanie Childress said Walter's case is not unique. She said she treats many seniors who must stop drinking in order to keep living independently; others come for health-related reasons.

Childress acknowledged that some think treatment is pointless for older people or that it's not a big deal because a senior is too infirm to hurt anyone.

Still, she says, help knows no age limit. As we get older, alcohol tolerance lessens and, for alcoholic seniors, drinking combined with medication can prove lethal. "If you drink, you die. There are people that are in that situation," Childress said.

'Love your liver!!!'

In a small room with a round table and a poster reading, "Love your liver!!!" Childress hosts daily treatment classes. She said she focuses on replacing drinking with healthy habits to overcome addiction. Her "therapy dog," a Bull Terrier named Ivan, sometimes accompanies her to class for assistance.

Childress said it helps that her classes treat just one age group - unlike other treatment programs - because members relate better. She said if older people were in treatment with younger generations who have different vices, the senior would be more likely to write off his or her problem saying, "I'm not like you. I'm not as bad as you. I can go home and drink."

While the Walker program gets many seniors who have long battled chemical dependency, they also see some who are new to the problem. Childress said different people have different reasons why they drink, so she incorporates socialization, nutrition, yoga and music into individual programs.

The $3,200 classes take 80 hours to complete, but they can be covered by insurance. The program includes group sessions, individual and couples sessions, and after care, available to Walker residents and referrals.

The program started eight years ago at a downtown Walker residence called Cityview; when Cityview closed last summer, the program moved to Walker Center, a 488-bed facility for transitional-care and Alzheimer patients.

Childress believes it to be the only in-house senior treatment program in the state.

Walker Administrator John Huhn said opening up the program to the public last fall helps fulfill the center's community outreach mission. "It's a need out there," he said. "It's a problem that we just don't talk about."

Since October, Childress said, referrals have come from within Walker's campus and from outside nursing homes. Four seniors have graduated so far, with five currently in the program.

Walter's road to recovery

Walter has been retired for 16 years. He worked at the Northeast Graco plant for 30 years, helping produce items including power washers, as well as industrial and automotive equipment and products. He's lived in his Northeast home for 41 years and longs to go back. "I still consider that my home, and I intend to go back," he said.

Walter admits that alcohol treatment isn't new to him. He said he's been through treatment four other times and gone through four AA support groups. Walter said it's not hard going through treatment again, but it takes effort. "I take things as they come. I get something out of everything, whether it's positive or negative," he said.

Childress said the older generation is proud and hard-working. She said they're often reluctant and slow to talk about their problems such as drinking. Childress said because this group has been so hard-working all their life, retirement-induced boredom and depression can set in, increasing drinking.

Although Walker enjoys retirement, he said depression and boredom play a role in his life. "I don't let it sit for too long. It's not good that it happens, but it's good that I can brush it off," he said.

Although he said he's still not sure how effective the program will be once he's done, Walter said he does think it can help those who want it. "There are many things this program can help with if they're willing to help themselves."

Beyond treatment

Walter, known to Childress as the "wise one" in their group, said it's helpful to seek support after treatment, such as an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and added that some help from God wouldn't hurt, either.

Childress agreed. Backing from other group members, socialization and "aftercare" support go a long way in helping older adults overcome an addiction.

She said Walker's Senior Club, which serves as a social outlet, especially helps those who lack family.

Senior Club Director Scott Saffert is decked out in a hat and plastic lei on a snowy Wednesday for the club's "S. S. Walker" tropical cruise day. He said seniors come from Childress' program to his, and he also refers people there.

Talking over island theme music, Saffert said, "When they go back into the community [from treatment], even with other people, they feel isolated."

In a room full of seniors sporting cruise gear and busily eating and chatting away, Saffert said events such as this one help seniors socialize and support those going back into the community from treatment.

Huhn said alcoholism in seniors is a very tough problem for a group that's already underserved, but he's proud of their program because they deal with the problem in a dignified way. He said, "It's very impressive how they change."