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Seniors experiment with taking ayahuasca to heal

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                The view from a window at the home of George Sarlo, in San Francisco, Oct. 10, 2019.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    The view from a window at the home of George Sarlo, in San Francisco, Oct. 10, 2019.

At 74, venture capitalist George Sarlo might not have seemed an obvious candidate for an ayahuasca experience. Sarlo, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1956, has had great professional success as the co-founder of Walden Venture Capital. He lives in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood, in a large house with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

And yet something was always lacking. Sarlo’s father had disappeared from their Budapest home in 1942. He had been drafted in a forced labor battalion, an experience he did not survive. At age 4, George had told himself that it was because he was “a bad boy” that his father had left that day, early in the morning, without saying goodbye. He believes that he never recovered from that early loss.

Sarlo’s close friend, a doctor, told him about ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, native to the Amazon. Used for centuries in sacred healing traditions throughout Central and South America, ayahuasca is now gaining popularity around the world, featured in recent headlines about the habits of Silicon Valley, though N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, the active ingredient in an ayahuasca trip, is mostly illegal in the United States (there are a couple of exceptions, under religious exemption). Ayahuasca tourism is thriving, with more and more people happy to fly thousands of miles to take part in weeklong ceremonies in Peruvian jungles or to seek out more luxurious contexts, like a four-star resort that comes complete with masseuses, pools and state-of-the-art fitness centers. And, notably, ayahuasca’s increasing popularity knows no age limits: Many of those now showing interest are squarely in Sarlo’s own demographic.

Sarlo himself was initially skeptical. Taking ayahuasca would entail a potentially distressing night of hallucinations, and excretions of all kinds, especially vomiting. One of the most notorious aspects of an ayahuasca journey is the violent purging involved. But he still decided to head to Yelapa, a small village in Mexico, and swallow down the bitter brew.

That night he saw a series of “old-fashioned photographs of soldiers in Hungarian uniforms,” he said, and black-and-white movie footage. But he was scared and sick, and swore that if he managed to come out of the hallucination, he would never go back in. The next day, exhausted and uncomprehending, he told the shaman he was disappointed he hadn’t found his father. The shaman told him he should try again the next night: on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Sarlo decided it was worth one more try. He drank again. Very quickly, he saw a forest covered with snow. “There were dead bodies all over the place,” he said. “There was one skeleton sticking out of the snow. And somehow I knew that was my father.

“I don’t know exactly how we communicated because I didn’t see anyone alive but I heard his voice. He came to me, and I asked him a very important question, which was: ‘Why didn’t you say goodbye?’ He said he thought he could get out of it and be back the same day, so why wake up little George?

“I asked a second question: ‘Did you love me?’ He pointed at the skeleton sticking out of the snow.” The skeleton’s mouth hung open. “He said, ‘Look at me. That’s my last breath. And with my last breath I blessed you, and I promised to guard you all your life.’”

Sarlo said that afterward something shifted. He realized his life had been “absolutely full of miracles,” he said. “It changed my life completely.”

Granny takes a trip

Scientific data on older people using ayahuasca is elusive, but anecdotal evidence is growing.

At Rythmia, a high-end retreat that offers ayahuasca ceremonies in Costa Rica, owner Gerry Powell carefully tracks all the guests who come for a week of plant medicine. Since opening in 2016, Powell said, about 6,000 people had stayed at Rythmia; of that number, more than 15% have been 65 or older. Every week, he said, there is at least one person in their late 70s partaking of ayahuasca, if not their 80s.

Powell said the motivation for trying ayahuasca differs, as one might expect, according to age. It’s the younger guests, 35 to 55, who tend to come because of problems they’re having, strained relationships, blocked careers. But for the 65-plus demographic, the question is often closer to “What is my purpose?”

Wendy Portnuff, 75, who has attended Rythmia, first went to Costa Rica three years ago with her husband, Tom Lorch, 82. Portnuff, who lives in San Francisco, is a former manager at IBM who heard about ayahuasca from a friend who is a naturopath.

Her husband wasn’t interested in drinking ayahuasca, but came to Costa Rica to support her. When they arrived he became curious about the experience, but wasn’t able to participate because of heart problems. (At Rythmia all guests are screened in a medical intake both before and upon arrival.) As it happened, both husband and wife wound up having profound experiences that week. Portnuff, taking part in the nightly ayahuasca ceremonies, had an insight on the first night that, as she said, “I had been denying my soul. And my soul was trying to speak to me. It was trying to say, ‘I’m OK.’”

Her husband went to a breath-work workshop and had a transformation: years of anger and dissatisfaction with the world melting away. The two said their marriage of 49 years changed dramatically that week. Three years later they are still on their “second honeymoon.”

People might startle at the image of someone old enough to be their grandparents willingly embarking on a night of hallucinations and vomiting. But Sophia Rokhlin, co-author of the new book on ayahuasca, “When Plants Dream,” said when it comes to the tradition of drinking ayahuasca, nothing could be more natural. In countries like Ecuador, for example, among tribes who practice healing traditions with ayahuasca, the dynamic Rokhlin has more often observed is this: The elders are increasingly the only ones drinking.

But in the United States, Rokhlin sees the growth of interest among the 70-and-up set as inevitable, for two main reasons: First, more and more scientific studies are being published showing that psychedelic agents have potential in treating persistent mental distress. In one small study of 17 adults, ayahuasca helped relieve recurrent depression. She said scientifically backed research matters more to this older demographic than trippy “kaleidoscopic articles in Vice” extolling the ayahuasca experience. But as well, she said, for those “closer to the end than the beginning,” there is also an increasing sense that “there’s nothing left to lose.”

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