In a recent article in the New York Times, there are more and more adults, 50 years old and above who are in need of substance abuse treatment.
In fact, an estimated 2.8 million older adults in the United States meet the criteria for alcohol abuse, and this number is expected to reach 5.7 million by 2020, according to a study published in the journey titled Addiction. In 2008, 231,200 people over 50 sought treatment for substance abuse, up from 102,700 in 1992, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency.
Rise in Older Adults Entering Drug Treatment Centers
Typically, older generations are not seen as being vulnerable for developing addictions. However, as the director of an addiction treatment center for older adults pointed out, “As we get older, it takes longer for our bodies to metabolize alcohol and drugs.” Perhaps this is the reason for more and more older adults entering drug treatment centers. It’s requiring more and more drugs or alcohol to experience the same effects than when they were younger. Their tolerance levels are increasing. Yet, a common misconception among many older adults is the belief that they aren’t drinking much at all.
Although alcohol is the typical substance of choice, there is research pointing to the use of illicit drugs among the elderly. In fact, the rate of illicit drug use among adults between 50 and 60 years of age increased from 2.7% to 6% in 2013.
Peter Bamberger calls the rise of alcohol and drug use among older adults a hidden epidemic for good reason. The following statistics reveal the dilemma of substance abuse among the elderly:
- There are 2.5 million older adults with an alcohol or drug problem
- Six to eleven percent of elderly hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems — 14 percent of elderly emergency room admissions, and 20 percent of elderly psychiatric hospital admissions.
- Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.
- Nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol related problems.
All of this makes sense considering that in the later years of life there may be events that cause an individual to reach for alcohol or drugs. These could be:
- Death of a spouse
- Retirement (loss of identity)
- Death of friends
One woman began to drink every night after she retired from her job at the local hospital. She was soon trying to hide her drinking from her grandchildren and grown sons and daughters. One night she fell asleep on the couch, later fell off the couch and bruised her eye on the coffee table. She woke up with a large black eye. Her children took her to a nearby drug addiction treatment center where she lived for one month. She attended 12 step meetings and has been sober ever since. She currently works as a counselor at a drug treatment center catering to the elderly.
Elderly People Benefiting From Substance Abuse Treatment
Sadly, there is a disbelief that elderly people cannot benefit from substance abuse treatment. However, research indicates the opposite. There are a large number of studies that reveal successful treatment results for adults 50 and older. Paul Sacco, a Professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, who researches aging and addiction, commented, “There’s a large body of literature saying that the outcomes are as good with older adults. They’re not hopeless. This may be just the time to get them treatment.”
Alcohol and drug use is common among the elderly and sometimes symptoms of use are confused with health problems. For this reason, older adults often don’t get the support they need. Another factor that gets in the way of treatment is that older adults are often isolated, making it easier to hide their drug use from children or peers. Also, because elderly adults tend to have many health care providers, an addiction may easily go unnoticed.
Although it’s common to think that the elderly don’t engage in addictive type behavior, more and more evidence points to this segment of the population being just as vulnerable to addiction and in need of substance abuse treatment.