The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI), which monitors the number of people admitted to addiction or mental health treatment centers, reports that substance abuse among older adults is increasing.

In 2020, 167,200 people aged fifty-five or older were admitted to addiction treatment, up from 109,412 in 2009. This represents a 53 percent increase.

Between 2009 and 2020, the share of older people out of all people seeking treatment,  

alcohol is the substance that older adults 55+ seek treatment for most often, followed by heroin.

These statistics are not limited to use of illicit drugs by older patients. The Clearinghouse finds the fastest growing addiction among seniors is the abuse and overuse of prescription drugs. “As many as 17 percent of adults aged sixty and over abuse prescription drugs. In 2015–2018, 15.1 percent of adults aged sixty and overused one or more prescription pain medications in the past 30 days.” 

Addiction does not discriminate based on age. However, for seniors aged sixty-two and older, the journey towards recovery comes with a unique set of challenges. Recognizing these challenges and adopting interventions tailored for seniors can help ensure the path to recovery is more effective and sustainable.

 1. Age-Specific Health Issues:

As we age, our bodies undergo natural changes, and we become more susceptible to a variety of health issues. Seniors struggling with addiction may also have pre-existing conditions like hypertension, diabetes, kidney or heart disease. Substance abuse can exacerbate these conditions and withdrawal symptoms might pose a greater risk.

Recommendation: This calls for a tried-and-true preventative care measure: self-advocacy. Patients (or their caretaker) should give all medical providers an accurate and complete history of prior and current substance abuse. This team approach will help providers develop an integrated care plan that ensures the recovery process is not just treating addiction but paying close attention to other underlying health issues. Note: Seniors typically take multiple medications for various health conditions. Regular medication reviews are essential. Healthcare providers should maintain a comprehensive list of all the medicines a senior is taking.

2. Mental Health and Cognitive Decline:

Some seniors might already be experiencing cognitive decline, memory issues, or even early stages of dementia. Substance abuse can further deteriorate cognitive function, making the recovery process more complex. For care providers and family members, it can become quite challenging to determine whether cognitive decline or substance abuse is responsible for problematic behaviors.  

Recommendation: It is suggested that treatment and therapy sessions be tailored for patients who show signs of memory loss and shortened attention spans. Therapy sessions that are shorter but more frequent can be beneficial says National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The Institute recommends the use of visual aids, repetitive exercises, and family involvement can aid in memory retention and understanding during therapy.

3. Limited Mobility and Access:

Many seniors have limited mobility, making it challenging for them to access treatment facilities or attend regular therapy sessions.

Recommendation: Telehealth services can bridge this gap. With advancements in technology, seniors can now participate in therapy sessions, support group meetings, and doctor consultations from the comfort of their homes. Caregivers and family members can also play a pivotal role in ensuring that seniors have the necessary resources and tools to participate in these virtual sessions.

4. Social Isolation:

Seniors, especially those living alone or in care facilities, can feel isolated. This isolation can intensify feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, making them more vulnerable to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Recommendation: Building a support system is crucial. Encourage seniors to join group therapy sessions or support groups where they can share their experiences and learn from others. Community centers should also offer programs that foster social interactions and connections among seniors.

5. Generational Attitudes towards Addiction:

Seniors from earlier generations might view addiction as a moral failing rather than a health issue. This perspective can make them more resistant to seeking help or admitting they have a problem.

Recommendation: Education and awareness campaigns targeted towards seniors can help change this perspective. Highlighting the stories of seniors who have successfully navigated their recovery journey can also serve as an inspiration and motivation for others.

6. Financial Constraints:

Many seniors live on a fixed income and might not have the financial resources to afford treatment, or the medications needed for recovery.

Recommendation: Explore public and private assistance programs designed for seniors. Many communities offer subsidized or free treatment options for seniors. Non-profits and charitable organizations might also have programs specifically tailored for seniors in recovery.

Recovery is a challenging journey for anyone, irrespective of age. However, for seniors, the challenges can be greater due to age-related health issues, societal perceptions, and other unique obstacles. Recognizing these challenges and adopting a holistic approach can pave the way for a successful and sustainable recovery journey for seniors. It is essential to remember that it is never too late to seek help or begin the path to recovery, no matter one’s age.

Jayne Hopson
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