Skip to content

So-called "senior moments" may actually be ADD

In the last 18 months, Paul Thompson has lost his wallet four times getting out of taxi cabs. His wife feared he had Alzheimer’s disease. But after a neuro-psychological workup, Thompson, a retired Wall Street bond trader, learned that what he actually has is attention deficit disorder.

Thompson is one of a growing number of retirees discovering they have the condition.

While little is known about attention deficit disorder in the elderly, Thompson, who is 63, said he has always misplaced things — backpacks, cell phones, hats, gloves. He forgets appointments, runs perpetually late and can’t seem to get organized. Until 2001, when he retired, he blamed absent-mindedness — a quirk of personality — for these habits. After he stopped working, that quirk went berserk.

“I got nothing, nothing, nothing done for the first several months,” said Thompson, who lives in New York City. “I couldn’t remember some conversations that had taken place just hours earlier.”

Peggy Bonsee, an ADD coach based in Washington D.C. who works with retired seniors, said retirement can send someone with the disorder into a tailspin.

“Work organizes our lives — provides a defining structure within which adults organize their days,” Bonsee said. “When a person retires, suddenly that structure is gone. For someone with ADD, losing that structure is especially difficult.”

Attention deficit disorder is believed to result from an inadequate supply of certain electrical-relay chemicals—called neurotransmitters—in the brain. That deficiency short-circuits the brain’s usual way of controlling functions like attention and behavior. People with ADD are often abnormally restless, unfocused and impulsive.

“Paul just doesn’t stop and think,” Carole Thompson said, describing how the disorder affects her husband.

Another older New Yorker with ADD, 69-year-old Bernie Velleman, defined the condition this way: “I call it congestion of the brain.”

This “congestion,” which runs in families, is estimated to affect between 6-8 percent of children and up to 7 percent of adults.

According to Russell Barkley, a psychiatry professor at the State University of New York in Syracuse, diagnoses of attention deficit disorder among seniors will likely increase in the coming years as Baby Boomers hit retirement age and the disorder becomes more widely understood.

“The trouble is that no studies have been done on ADD in elderly populations,” Barkley said. “We don’t know the particular ways they might be affected compared to younger adults.”

Treating seniors takes some guesswork as well, Barkley said.

The usual drugs used to treat attention deficit disorder could be dangerous for patients over 60, because many of them have heart conditions. Amphetamine-based stimulants, like Ritalin and Adderall, can raise an elderly patient’s heart rate to unsafe, even deadly, levels.

Also, seniors are more likely to have to take several medications at the same time, which could be a problem.

“Prescribing drugs for a geriatric patient often means tracking the interactions of a range of medications, not all of which have been studied under mixed-use and long-term conditions,” Barkley said.

Bernie Velleman’s medicine problem is a little different. The New York City resident lives on public assistance, and monthly trips to the doctor’s office and pharmacy would require of him the sort of energy and money he no longer has.

Still, Velleman has come up with his own way of coping with attention deficit disorder: Twice a month he attends lectures sponsored by local support groups, and every week he ventures out to the public library and to free readings around the city.

Paul Thompson also attends various lectures and programs, and can afford to take his wife to the theater several times a month.

Living in an urban environment is perfect for someone with ADD, said Thompson, who takes classes at his alma mater, Columbia University. “There’s so much worthwhile stuff here for the restless mind.”

This spring he is auditing a class on the history of New York City. “It’s the third time I’ve taken it,” he said. “Nothing stuck the first two times. Sometimes things go in one ear and out the other.”

As for solving his lost-wallet dilemma, Thompson now asks cabdrivers for a receipt. That way, he reasons, he gets something to put back into the wallet, which begs him to keep it in hand. Would he guarantee this reminder for other seniors with attention deficit disorder?

“Not a chance,” he said. “No solution is completely ADD-proof.”

email: tb2231@columbia.edu