Old junkies never die, they go into a retirement home

European Times: ROTTERDAM
Click to follow
The Independent Online
CHRISTMAS WILL come early this year for Carlos Prade. In a few weeks' time, Rotterdam's newest residential home for retired people will be ready and Carlos will be moving in. Peering through a pair of funky blue tinted glasses, Carlos admits he is weary now. He wants to take it easy, let someone else take the strain.

Although a fresh-faced 59, he suffers from aches and pains, his hands are shaking and he speaks in a whisper. His grip on reality appears tenuous. He shuffles off mid-conversation and then suddenly says: "I want to go to England. To see Elizabeth." Then he breaks into a song.

In the home, a converted town house, Carlos will have his own room and bathroom. There will be television, a communal kitchen for anyone capable of cooking. Round-the- clock medical care is guaranteed as well as trained staff to look after his "psycho-social needs". There will not be any official supply of dope heroin or cocaine. But Carlos has no worries on that score. He is about to become the first resident of the world's first old folks home for drug addicts.

The Netherlands has the healthiest drug addicts in the world. So healthy that they are turning into pensioners and the authorities have a geriatric drug policy dilemma on their hands.

The average age of drug users in the country has risen to 36, the highest in the world. Thanks to a policy based on health rather than criminalisation, that is increasing by 10 months each year. In Rotterdam alone at least 100 people have made it to the age bracket of 55 to 70.

But substance abuse takes its toll and, although they are living longer, Dutch junkies are old before their time. "At 55 or 60 they are displaying symptoms of people 20 years older. Senility is common. They forget things and feel threatened," explained Harry Kuiper of the Boumanhuis Foundation, one of the biggest drug addiction agencies in the Netherlands.

Most old people fret about keeping warm and getting to the shops and the pension office. But geriatric junkies have the added stress of having to hold their own in the drug scene which, even in an ultra-tolerant society where consumption is not prosecuted, is run by criminals. Procuring narcotics, knowing when you are being fobbed off with inferior stuff and finding enough money to keep the dealers happy is not that easy when you have difficulty walking unaided.

Now, in response to a novel proposal from the Rotterdam Junkiebond, the drug addicts' union, the municipal health authority has agreed to finance an old folks home, devoted exclusively to drug users, for a one-year pilot scheme.

"This will be a totally new development not just for the Netherlands and Europe, but for the world," said Mr Kuiper, a keen supporter of the plan.

It is not on, he says, to integrate the junkies with ordinary senior citizens because they might have difficulty finding acceptance. "Most elderly people would tolerate a person taking a drink or smoking a cigarette, but just one gram of heroin in an old people's home and they would want you out."

Nora Storm, whose idea it was, has already given the residence a name. "Coconuts. One of the old men chose it," she said. "He's on coke and he's nuts".

A formidable woman in her fifties, Ms Storm is the Junkiebond president and has turned her own home over to accommodation for junkies of all ages. She runs a tight ship. Drugs are allowed in the rooms but you must show that you are making an effort to limit consumption and you must find a job and pay your way.

The inauguration of Coconuts means she can at last stop worrying about the grand-daddies as she calls them. "They can't cope. Their brains are going and they leave on the gas sometimes. And they are lonely. The music is not the same these days. They also have the problem that their grandchildren won't visit them."

Initially, the plan is to restrict the home to seven residents. Out of their pensions they will pay about pounds 180 a month rent. There will be no pressure to kick the habit. So where will the drugs come from? "It won't be a problem," is all Nora will say. She foresees a growing demand for such homes and insists that it should be up to the national health service to take over the cost and running of them. Mr Kuiper agrees. "This is not an indulgence or an amusement," he said. "These people need special care."

The broad-minded Netherlands approach to drug use is legendary but a national home plan for old junkies may be a bridge too far. Rotterdam's health authority is pioneering a controversial scheme to distribute free heroin to serious addicts but, even here, the location of the house is being kept secret. "Neighbours think it will attract traffickers to the area. But we certainly don't want it to be in an isolated part of town, cut off from the community," said Mr Kuiper.

Local newspapers have been running stories about how drugs will be delivered each day by the home's in house dealer. A claim flatly denied by all involved. "There will be no buying or selling. Not in the house," Mr Kuiper said.

"In the end," he sighed, "it all comes down to an acceptance of drug use. At the heart of this debate is the question of whether we can accept elderly people using heroin, even in small amounts. I'm not sure everyone can. This might be too much, even for Holland."

Katherine Butler