Source: Scotsman
Date: 20 December 2004

Home where the old folk snort heroin


TUCKED away in a quiet corner of this Dutch port city, Seniorenpand looks like an ordinary retirement home.

Comfortable sofas huddle around a television set in the lounge. Puzzles and tattered paperbacks fill the shelves nearby. Residents chat about the weather over tea and coffee.

But this retirement home has a twist. In the bedrooms, the elderly get high on heroin and cocaine.

"I have been using drugs most of my adult life, and I can’t stop now," says Gert-Jan, a 62-year-old resident. "Being old doesn’t mean your addiction just goes away." Funded by the city of Rotterdam and a semi-private medical foundation, Seniorenpand, is billed as the world’s first retirement home for drug addicts.

Three other Dutch cities - Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague - are now setting up similar refuges for their own aging addicts, and policymakers around Europe are watching the experiment.

For elderly addicts who often lack the physical strength to survive on the streets and are unwelcome at traditional retirement homes, Seniorenpand is a lifeline and there is a long waiting list for its seven rooms.

"If it weren’t for this place, I would be dead and buried now," says Gert-Jan, who uses a walking frame to get around. "This is a real home for me."

In the Netherlands, where addicts receive free medical care and methadone from the state, death rates from drug use are the lowest in Europe. Half the nation’s users are now over 40, and many are in their 60s.

Seniorenpand takes a very Dutch approach to addiction. Though encouraged to consume fewer drugs, residents are free to buy heroin and cocaine on the street. The main aim is to help addicts see out their final years in comfort and dignity.

"We do not deal drugs to the residents, but we don’t forbid them to use them either,’’ said Alexander Hogendoorn, the home’s manager.

"Some people reach a point where their addiction is irreversible, so our goal is to give them some stability and quality of life until the end comes."

Though small and modestly equipped, Seniorenpand certainly beats living on the streets. Each resident has a private room with a television and a sink.

Outside contractors do the cleaning and cooking. Medical staff visit regularly, and a social worker is on hand around the clock.

To an outsider, the blend of domesticity and drugs can seem almost surreal. One resident, for instance, has a set of needles for her knitting and another for injecting heroin.

Henny, 51, listens to Bach CDs in his spotless bedroom. Arranged neatly on the desk are a mobile phone, books, family photos - and a plastic sachet filled with brown residue.

"That was the heroin I snorted last night," he said, holding up the tiny bag. "It was pretty good stuff."

"Old addicts are just like other old people," said Carmel, 58. "All we want is a safe, quiet place where we can get on with our lives."

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