Whiting Assembly of God in Manchester Township, New Jersey, is located in an area heavily populated with senior citizens. According to Rich Curtis, a deacon at the church, the median age of their congregation of about 95 people is early 70s. “We joke that when we have people who are 65 or younger attend, we’re going to have to start a youth group,” Curtis says with a laugh.
However, the problem of opioid addiction is no laughing matter to Curtis or Pastor David Charlesworth. Whether it’s loved ones, community members, or potentially even someone attending the church, the pathway to addiction for seniors is a growing and deadly epidemic.
Curtis, who is 76, says addiction to opioids is a big problem for seniors in their extended community. He explains that it typically starts out innocently, such as going to the doctor for chronic back pain. Many times, an opioid painkiller is prescribed. However, prescription or not, an opioid is still an addictive narcotic. What many seniors don’t realize is that the body builds a tolerance to opioids, so after a few months, a greater amount is needed to generate the same level of pain relief, and so they increase their dosage — the path to potential addiction and opioid abuse has begun.
“Seniors then start to use heroin because it’s cheaper,” Curtis explains. “They can no longer afford to pay $35 for a prescription pill, which they’ve quite possibly have become addicted to, they’re living with acute pain, they’re on a fixed income, and they can buy heroin for as little as $3.50 a bag.”
The problem hit home for Charlesworth and the Whiting congregation when they learned that drug deals were taking place in the church parking lot. In addition, local statistics showed an increasing number of overdoses and deaths of seniors in their community. Three years ago the church hosted its first seminar on opioid abuse.
Charlesworth, 72, who has been ministering at Whiting First Assembly since 2004 and senior pastor since 2013, observes that addiction to or abuse of opioids isn’t always easy to recognize. “Most of the elderly people we run into, they don’t reveal things like that, they keep pretty closed up about it,” he states, “so it’s hard to know if it’s taking place, but I do believe there has been an uptick in the abuse of opioids, especially among seniors.”
Recently, Curtis, with Charlesworth’s blessing, helped the church partner with local police, Teen Challenge New Jersey, Manchester Business Association, and other local agencies to present a second seminar called, “Not Even Once.” In addition to promoting the message of not doing heroin even once — as that’s all it takes for many to become addicted — they offered a message of hope.
“Too often — people — good people, find themselves addicted to opioids, but they don’t know where to turn or what their options for help are,” Curtis says. “In New Jersey, laws have been passed that make it easier for the police, instead of arresting people struggling with addiction, to help them get the help they need. If you go to them, they have partnership with a program called Integrity House that offers help within 24 hours and we also have Teen Challenge available.”
Paul Henderson, Development supervisor for Teen Challenge New Jersey, believes when churches partner with Adult & Teen Challenge, the Assemblies of God faith-based program for those struggling with life-controlling issues, it provides options to people who may not even know the program exists.
“So many people have tried everything the world has to offer to live a healthy and normal life — from medication-assisted treatment to multiple 30-day treatment programs — but they’ve been left hopeless,” Henderson says. “Through Christ, Teen Challenge is the most successful treatment program on the planet. Acting as the hands and feet of Jesus, we are producing the results they’ve been looking for. We have the solution, but so often faith-based programs don’t have a seat at the table. Being able to communicate our success at events such as Not Even Once opens the door to lasting results for people.”
Charlesworth agrees. “Teen Challenge has a wonderful program,” he says. “It’s a 15-month program that offers a lot of mentoring and follow-up. It provides the means to taking an individual struggling with addiction, showing them the right path, and giving them the opportunity to get back in the workforce and back into society.”
The Not Even Once seminar held in August was well-received by attendees. Each guest received a bag filled with educational materials about addiction and how to get help. The seminar also provided the opportunity for individuals to more freely communicate about personal struggles and learn how to help family or friends struggling with addiction. Guests later received a follow-up letter from the church.
“The church is a hospital,” Curtis says. “We get sick people and our responsibility is to help get them well. But part of the process of getting off the opioids is relapsing — very few kick this habit the first time around, but that’s part of the process they have to go through to finally get rid of this problem. We are here for them and we’re not going to desert them.”
One of the immediate takeaways of the seminar was how to recognize when a person is potentially struggling with a heroin addiction before it’s too late.
“If you notice that spoons are disappearing from your house or if you visit a friend whose spoons are ‘always dirty’ and doesn’t have any — cooking heroin ruins spoons and typically are thrown away,” Curtis explains. “Other signs include missing money, pawn shop receipts, shoplifting as well as the physical signs of droopy eyelids, drowsiness, flushed skin, and tracts on their arms.”
“When we speak to law enforcement about the opioid epidemic they tell us that we (as a nation) can’t arrest our way out of this,” Henderson says. “It takes a cumulative effort between community, church, officers, and other first responders to make [ending this epidemic] sustainable.”
Curtis sees facing up to the opioid epidemic as a vital role for the church. For just as people must have their basic physical needs met first in order to best reach their hearts for Christ, those who have a mental or physical dependency on drugs need to have their struggles addressed so that they can fully devote themselves to God.
“We’ve had a lot of good feedback, and another pastor in our community now wants to do something similar at his church,” Curtis says. “I don’t see why any church, particularly a younger church with people who have more resources than we do, couldn’t do something along this line and do it even better. This epidemic isn’t limited to senior citizens, it is rampant and growing in every age group.”