Program tackles alcoholism

STILLWATER (AP) — If Vicki Burkhow were younger, she’d be drunk by now.

It’s 2 p.m., a time of day when she was intoxicated for much of her life. Those were the days when she lost her job, was jailed for drunken driving, and “pretty much drank myself to death.”

Now, at 66, staying sober is complicated by the fact that she’s not young anymore. She said one thing has saved her life — a program in Stillwater that is exclusively for senior citizens.

“Thank God for Silver Sobriety,” Burkhow told the Pioneer Press.

The seniors-only program addresses the loneliness and anger that older drinkers feel. And — most important — it’s affordable for her.

The program was founded two years ago, perfectly timed to meet a soaring demand.

“High-risk drinking” — think DWIs, ambulance rides, fatal falls — by senior citizens jumped by 65 percent from 2002 to 2013, according to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Drinking is increasing for all age groups, and younger people still drink more than those over 65. But drinking by seniors has increased at a faster rate than that of any other age group, with 55 percent reporting drinking alcohol in the past year.

In 2014, two neighbors in Marine on St. Croix decided to do something about it.

Win Miller and Peter Oesterreich were both recovering alcoholics who were over 50.

Oesterreich had just quit his job at the Senior Recovery Center in St. Paul. He said that Minnesota was full of treatment programs, but they catered to the wealthy.

The cost of a one-month stay at a Hazelden clinic is widely reported to be about $28,000, although Minnesota-based Hazelden won’t comment about the costs. The national average in 2011 of $19,000, cited on the website, is out of reach for typical senior alcoholics, said Oesterreich.

Out of the roughly 350 treatment centers in the state, said Oesterreich, about 140 are for young people.

But for seniors? Only three.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Medicare does little to help, he said. Medicare will pay only for a treatment program in a hospital. There are only two in the metro area — St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul and Cambridge Medical Center in Cambridge.

He and Miller knew most treatment programs are licensed by the state, heavily regulated and with plenty of red tape. For example, the software to get into the state’s record-keeping system costs $40,000, said Oesterreich.

Instead of the clinical, hospital-based programs, the two talked about a program based on peer-to-peer meetings in a retreat-like setting.

“So Win — he’s the business guy — said, ‘Let’s do it!'” Oesterreich recalled.

They had connections with other recovering alcoholics, and at their first fundraising meeting gathered $15,000. Other gifts followed until they had enough to offer scholarships, which allow anyone at any income level to take part.

They were determined to keep costs low. That’s why Miller — the director — doesn’t take a salary. Oesterreich, the director of recovery services, didn’t take one until recently.

They set up shop in an industrial park in Stillwater. There, alcoholics over 50 pay $4,500 for a six-month program. That includes group meetings three times a week and a one-on-one meeting with a counselor weekly.

Only one other program like it exists in the metro area — The Retreat in Wayzata.

Senior drinkers are in treatment voluntarily, and are often more serious about recovery. They know — and fear — what they are dealing with.