For midlife families — many of whom must care for children and older parents at the same time — the stress of addiction can be almost unbearable. Crises can brew for years before they erupt. Such was the case for Blake H., 45, a writer and married father of two in California. He describes his 63-year-old father, Sam, as a lifelong drug addict. "Marijuana was part of the household," he says. "After I went to bed at night, my dad would sit in the living room and smoke. I would stuff towels under my door." Now, Blake says, his father is addicted to methamphetamines, a dependence that makes him volatile, dishonest, and unable to handle money.Over the past 15 or 20 years, Sam has asked Blake to help him pay his mortgage, to buy him a car, and even to purchase a motor home for him. Ever hopeful that Sam could get clean, Blake always sent the money. "I thought he'd make an effort to find out where he wanted to be in life instead of acting like a 15-year-old kid."
But Sam continued using meth and coke. Last year he wound up penniless once again.
Blake no longer trusts Sam's promises. He has stopped writing checks. He rarely speaks to his father — or conceals his anger. "I thought, ' What happened to this generation that needs their kids to support them — not because they're elderly but because they won't take responsibility?' "
In prior generations the shame associated with addiction often kept people from seeking treatment. But midlife addicts — and, crucially, their spouses — are far more open to confronting thorny issues. "Younger spouses aren't willing to take secrets to their graves," says interventionist Debra Jay.
That makes boomers likelier than their parents to seek therapy. Yet even patients who can afford it must hunt hard for rehab of any kind. Treatment programs across the country have dwindled in the past two decades, says Fred Blow: "That's something we're going to have to face as a nation; we must have more treatment programs. Older people can advocate for that."
Five years after the intervention that changed his life, Ron Dash remains clean and sober. Patricia, Ron, and Sam now live in Florida, where Ron bikes, swims, and attends 12-step meetings in between driving Sam to football practice and cooking dinner. "After being pretty much absent all those years, Ron has learned to be Sam's father," says Patricia. "And he has learned to be his friend."
Despite the odds against them, she and Ron have rebuilt their marriage. It didn't happen the day he walked out of rehab, nor in the weeks and months afterward. "I spent four years waiting for the other shoe to drop," Patricia admits. "Not until this year have I finally started trusting him again."
"That was huge," says Ron, pondering how his life might be otherwise. "What happens to Sammy if we go through all this trouble and the addict, the alcoholic, doesn't stay sober?"
He plans never to find out.
Elaine Appleton Grant is the health reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where in 2010 she produced the series Prescription Drug Abuse in New Hampshire.