The Junkie Old Folks' Home

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Aging Addicts Find Refuge in Dutch Care Facility

By Bernhard Albrecht

The junkies from the 1970s are getting older and many still haven't kicked the habit. An experimental home in the Netherlands provides them a safe place to live -- and do drugs. Many will likely stay there for the rest of their lives.

With The Hague is still in darkness, at 5:30 in the morning, the night has ended in Woodstock. The first residents of the home walk into the lobby, past the abandoned pool table and the jukebox: a limping man with an emaciated, birdlike face; a man whose face is all but hidden underneath his hooded sweatshirt; a woman with puffy eyes, wearing a bathrobe. Driven by an invisible force, they make their way up the wheelchair ramp toward a door labeled "Medicatie," or Drug Dispensary. It opens at 6 a.m.

By the time Gerrit, the night nurse, opens the door, the small group has grown into a good-sized, yet silent, cluster. Soon they are greedily swallowing their rations, sometimes as many as 15 pills at a time. Gerrit hands out the substitute drug methadone and various sedatives, as well as those medications the elderly typically need: pills for high blood sugar, heart problems and hypertension.
Everyone in the hostel also takes illegal drugs. "But they have to get the drugs themselves. We just tolerate their use," explains the night nurse. He says he has known some of the junkies since he was young. "We used to go to all the same discos and bars. There have been some surprising reunions here," he says. He points to the list of residents next to the reception desk: 36 names, complete with room numbers and birth dates. Most were born in the late 1950s. The youngest resident, the woman in the bathrobe, was born in 1967.

For all of them, Woodstock is their last refuge, the only old-age home in the world where hard drugs are not a taboo, a place intended for people who, in their early 50s, look as worn out as if they were in their 70s. The residents are all hopeless cases, people who have been severely addicted to drugs for at least 10 years and have repeatedly failed to respond to therapy.

The Aging Woodstock Generation
The Dutch are pioneers. In a 2010 analysis, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction foresaw a new challenge approaching European society, now that the Woodstock generation is aging.

At 8 a.m., residents convene in the main room to be assigned their tasks for the day. John, the occupational therapist, reads out the assignments -- cleaning the house, sweeping the street, kitchen duty -- and 10 junkies raise their hands in succession. A hot meal has to be cooked for the residents at lunchtime, and today is also "Restaurant Day," when people from the neighborhood come to the hostel for dinner.

"Three hours of work is enough. More than that is too much for our residents," says the occupational therapist. Each resident is allowed to work three times a week to earn a little pocket money. Their earnings, combined with their welfare benefits, are enough for most residents to spend about €300 ($400) a month for drugs.

The lobby is now full. Four men are playing cards in a corner, and a fifth resident switches on the jukebox to play a song by the band Toto, "Hold the Line." He dances slowly, his trousers flapping around his shapeless hips. A blonde with stringy hair soon joins him, rocking her wheelchair back and forth to the beat.

The man with the birdlike face has decided to do the cleaning. He extends his bony hand and introduces himself: Aad Akerboom, 53 years old. The green-and-yellow scarf around his neck is from his football club, ADO Den Haag. He was considered a talent there 40 years ago, he says, and he even played against the Real Madrid youth squad. He took his first dose of heroin at 14, and everything went downhill from there. He became a petty thief and drug dealer, and spent a total of five years in prison. His nickname at the hostel is Birdman, because he raises pigeons in the garden shed.

Three House Rules
When he's finished his work for the day, Akerboom will have earned €40, enough for a gram of heroin. He knows the best dealer in The Hague, he says. Because of his connection -- and because people believe he is honest -- others always gave him money in the past, he says. "I neglected the pigeons. I don't do that anymore," he says.

Good drugs are hard to come by. Most are impure and give you a headache instead of getting you high, says Akerboom. But his heroin, he adds enthusiastically, reminds him of the legendary "China White" you could buy in the backrooms of Amsterdam's Chinatown for a few guilders in the 1970s.

Akerboom could undoubtedly make a lot of money in the hostel. But dealing is prohibited at Woodstock. It's one of the three house rules. The other two are: no prostitution in the rooms, and no violence. Akerboom has always obeyed the rules. "I have principles," he says, with a smile. Anyone who breaks the house rules is expelled -- thrown back into the life of homelessness they left when they came to the hostel.

"When a junkie gets a key here, he abandons the idea of ever being clean again," says Nils Hollenborg, the medical director of the institution. In a place where temptation is pervasive, even the strongest-willed junkie is likely to give in.

The kind of therapy that's usually administered in addiction medicine doesn't take place in Woodstock. The goals there are different, says Hollenborg: to stabilize the health of residents and provide their days with structure. This, he explains, significantly reduces drug use shortly after admission, which has been one of the valuable experiences in this experiment.

Six of the residents have switched to alcohol, for cost reasons. Beer is sold for 15 cents a can, and the employees manage the supply. Residents are not allowed to buy more than 10 cans a day.

Heroin versus Alcohol

One of the residents, René, died recently. Everything about him was black, his trousers, his sweatshirt, his hair. He had the letters "PUNK" tattooed on his fingers. There is still a photo hanging on the wall in his room. It depicts him standing with his 10-year-old son in front of his red brick house, next to mountain bikes and kites. Both are beaming.

It was the alcohol, not the hard drugs, that took René to the brink of death. A year ago, the doctors gave him three months to live. Liquor had destroyed his liver and his brain. Everything he said was gibberish, and his hands shook. He stayed alive as long as he did, says Hollenborg, because of the "heroin program." He was given heroin for free in return for the promise to stop drinking. He became more approachable and his speech improved, but then he started drinking again.

It's 12:30 p.m. Johan den Dulk, the founder of Woodstock, is sitting in office of the head of the nursing staff. Woodstock is the project of his life and he visits the facility once a week. He managed the building himself until nine months ago, when he was promoted to an upper management position in the Association of Psychiatric Service Providers, which owns Woodstock. The residents mention his name with deep respect.

Niccolo and Donkey
Team Zissou

At age 48, it's interesting to see that the tragedy for high time-preference individuals is not that they will live too short; it's that they will live too long.