In the mid-1980s, Carol Colleran made a promise to her daughter, who was dying of ovarian cancer.
“It was a promise that she would make a shift in her life,” said Colleran’s surviving daughter, Amy.
Colleran, who had gotten sober in 1982, had been urged by her daughter to become an addiction counselor.
Now in middle age, she followed her daughter’s advice.
It was a decision that not only changed her own life but helped transform the addiction treatment industry. Colleran went on to advocate for treatment programs for older adults and hold leadership positions at some of the nation’s most prominent addiction treatment organizations, at a time when the treatment needs of older adults were largely ignored.
“She was a giant in our field,” said William Cope Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “She was talking about older adults when nobody else really was.”
Colleran, 82, died April 24 at her home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Born in Estherville, Iowa, and raised in Bloomington, Colleran moved to small towns in Wisconsin — Centuria and Balsam Lake — to raise a family after she married Jim Colleran.
In 1988 she began working as a counselor at Hazelden, based in Center City, Minn. Later, she established a treatment program for older adults at Hazelden’s affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“She had to fight for it,” said Brenda Iliff, executive director of Hazelden Betty Ford in Naples, Fla. “There was some ageism in the system.”
Iliff said Colleran’s passion for the needs of older adults helped the program grow, as did her personal approach.
“She was a very warm mentor and was willing to share anything,” said Iliff.
Amy Colleran said her sister, Cathy, who died in 1986, saw those qualities.
“My sister said, ‘You have a destiny and you need to help people,’ ” recalled Amy.
“Sobriety gave her a lot,” she added. “Cathy got sick and she was able to be there in Cathy’s life.”
Colleran’s former husband, Jim, died seven months after Cathy. “Though my parents had split, they were very close,’’ Amy said.
She said that sobriety, and mentorship from people at Hazelden, gave Colleran the ability to push through the losses.
“We did see the difference,” said Amy. “We saw the humility and everything that goes with living a life sober.”
Colleran would go on to become executive vice president of national affairs and public policy for the Hanley Foundation, a West Palm Beach treatment center that had become independent from Hazelden.
She co-authored a book about recovery for older adults and held many task force and advisory positions, including stints with the United Nations Assembly on Aging; the National Advisory Council to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and the advisory board for the Center on Addiction at Columbia University.
“She has had a huge impact nationally,” said Iliff.
“She had all of the competencies of a clinician,” said Moyers. “But she also had the personal story and the backbone of courage to share it openly in ways that … put a face on the reality that recovery is real in older adults.”
In addition to her daughter Amy, Colleran is survived by sons Jay and Dan, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
A memorial will be held starting at noon on Friday, May 17, at Kolstad Funeral Home, 301 4th St., Centuria, Wis.