For all the problems plaguing queer seniors, drug use is probably one of the last things to come to mind. But among seniors — older gay men in particular —crack use is a growing concern.
“There is not a lot of educational/prevention work being done with seniors,” says Silke Haller, a harm-reduction and housing-support worker at Toronto’s Fred Victor Centre. “No one wants to think of them having sex or doing drugs.”
But Haller says she’s seeing an increase in the number of seniors using drugs in the support groups that she runs, many of whom are also testing positive for HIV.
Crack, a form of cocaine that is dissolved with other ingredients and then boiled to form lumps or “rocks,” is frequently used in connection with sex and can lead to higher-risk sexual behaviours. In addition, Haller notes that because crack affects erections, some men take Viagra, too. The combination can lead to heart attacks.
Haller says older queer men are particularly vulnerable because so many who would now be seniors died during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“Many older gay men have lost a big part of their community to AIDS so there are not that many of them,” says Haller. “If they’ve managed not to get HIV, many friends are gone. They are at the mercy of younger people.”
Haller suggests older men may turn to crack in an effort to fit into a culture that places a premium on youth and beauty, particularly with younger lovers who want to use crack before sex.
“Especially if you’re picking up someone younger you’re not going to discourage them from doing it and not have sex,” says Haller.
Haller adds that because crack, like crystal meth, is often used as a way to enhance sex, it is popular in the gay scene.
Michael (not his real name) a recovering crack addict, says crack offers “a sexually intense high and charges your libido.”
“[The first hit] is always the most powerful and intense,” he says. “Every other hit after that you are trying to match that feeling — chasing the dragon.”
Michael, who used hustling to support his addiction, says that older queer men are most likely to be introduced to crack by younger lovers who are already hooked. “They get the guy to try it and, in order to repeat the scene, [they] will repeat the use.”
Haller agrees, calling this situation “a crack relationship” where the younger lover is “often using them for money.”
Although there are circumstances — like sharing drugs with hustlers or one night stands —that might make older men more likely to use crack, recreational drug use is generally becoming more popular among older folks, says Robert Eves, executive director of Community Outreach Programs In Addictions (COPA).
Eves says there are two main reasons retirement-age people might be more likely to use drugs: attitude and access.
“[Drug use] is creeping into the younger end of COPA’s age group [55 years and older], which to date have had the most exposure to recreational substances than any previous age group and use more and more often,” says Eves. “This trend will continue in future generations.”
According to Eves, eight to 12 percent of Toronto seniors have substance abuse problems —approximately 60,000 people.
“Attitudes and ideas about drug use have changed,” he says. “The generation before them may have cut off at alcohol where in the next generation cocaine became okay.
“Access has also changed. When you are seeking some temporary relief, you’ll start picking up what is there.”
For the moment at least, crack is one of the more accessible drugs in Toronto.
“[You] can get crack quickly and easily,” Haller says. “Drugs shift due to availability. Right now that’s crack.”
While substance misuse is often precipitated by an event, Eves notes that the reasons seniors misuse are usually different and more complicated than for younger users. Eves lists loss of social network, loss of a long-term partner, loss of purpose after retirement and isolation as contributing factors.
“As a whole, in Western society, [older adults] are really the undervalued, under-recognized, under-everything segment of our population,” Eves says.
Michael says that whether the average person realizes it or not, crack is readily available in the gaybourhood.
“[There are] crackheads all over the streets and ‘normal’ people don’t see it,” he says.
The failure to recognize the problem is part of what keeps queer seniors with addictions from getting the help they need, says Eves.
“Many signs and symptoms associated with substance misuse are also associated with aging,” he says, citing memory loss and impaired mobility as two examples. Haller adds that older people are “not out as much, are calmer, and also might be on other medications.”
Stereotypes about crack use also get in the way of harm-reduction efforts. Haller says that although crack use is often equated with the poor, in fact, “You need to have a lot of money to be high on crack all day, and very resourceful to get the money.”
Among queers that stigma is amplified.
“It is the drug that dare not speak its name,” says Michael. “It’s not sexy.