Are There Specific Drug Addiction Treatments for Older Adults?
In the 1970s and 1980s, drug-addiction concerns focused primarily on teenagers who got high for fun because “all my friends were doing it.” Even where it was acknowledged that many people used drugs to forget the pressures of life or “improve” their performance in various activities, public emphasis still focused on “Just Say No” urgings aimed at middle- and high schoolers.
It’s true that the human brain is most susceptible to peer pressure—and people are most prone to acting recklessly—from puberty to age 25. It’s also true that younger drug users face special dangers because artificially introduced chemicals can impede development of body and brain. But, especially in the wake of increased publicity surrounding addiction to painkillers—many of which were originally prescribed to alleviate sufferings associated with cancer and other late-in-life diseases—awareness is growing that mature adults and seniors also develop addiction disorders. This article will look at drug addiction concerns and treatments specific to older adults.
HOW SERIOUS IS THE DRUG ABUSE PROBLEM WITH THE ELDERY?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, around one in four adults over 50 are taking prescription medications that are at least potentially addictive. Nearly one in five older Americans have misused a combination of alcohol and prescription medications. And the number of seniors seeking addiction treatment more than doubled from 1992 to 2008. By the year 2020, over 5.5 million older adults in the U.S. could be addicted to alcohol—and as many as half of nursing-home residents may be already.
Besides greater risk for developing chronic-pain issues, special concerns related to addiction in seniors include:
- As a person ages, metabolism of food and drugs slows, often to the point where what was an “everyday” dose of alcohol for years may begin to cause problems.
- Since older adults are less strong physically than their younger counterparts—and often have had more time to develop physical complications from drug use—addiction detox tends to be more complicated and dangerous.
- Many older adults are prone to forgetting whether they’ve already taken their regular medication, and so may take extra without realizing it.
- Many symptoms associated with addiction—foggy thinking, hallucinations, loss of muscle control—are also associated with “normal” aging, so family and even doctors may not recognize a developing addiction as quickly as they would in a younger person.
- Older adults are frequently dealing with retirement and widowhood—major life changes that often come with the addiction-triggering emotions of stress, depression, loneliness and questioning one’s value.
- If an adult is part of the “oldest” demographic and in poor overall health, he or she is often faced with an attitude of, “What’s the sense of treating addiction in someone who’s not going to be around much longer anyway?”
If you have an aging loved one who is showing symptoms of addiction, don’t dismiss it as “typical senior problems,” and definitely don’t assume their age means they’re past help anyway. With proper treatment, anyone can regain sobriety and get much from their remaining years.
ADDICTION TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR OLDER ADULTS
In many ways, addiction treatment for those over “a certain age” is little different than for anyone else: physical detox under medical supervision, follow-up inpatient care with therapy, and long-term access to regular support groups. However, if a person has special health issues, or just prefers a peer support group in the same age demographic and/or a therapist experienced in working with older adults, there are treatment programs specializing in this age group just as there are programs specific to the needs of adolescents. You can locate and evaluate these by the same approaches that work for any age:
- Get recommendations, preferably from health insurance providers, doctors, religious centers and/or social services agencies. With older adults, options here include the AARP and local government/community programs for seniors.
- Once you have a list of options, go online and check out their websites, social media pages and what others are saying about them. Look for places that have been in business for several years, keep their online presence updated and are active in community service and education.
- It’s usually best to choose a place near where you live, making it easier to evaluate the center in advance and stay in touch with loved ones on the outside. This is doubly important with older adults who have difficulties traveling.
- Visit the center in person before committing yourself to it. Ask to meet an actual treatment provider and tour the grounds. Observe how attentive staff are to your concerns, how well maintained the place is and what facilities are provided. Verify that they can deal with any special health or mobility needs. Don’t ignore misgivings or sign up for anything out of desperation: make sure the place is a good fit.
- Read our checklist for more tips on finding the best addiction treatment center.
RECOVERY AND BEYOND
Once you’ve chosen the right treatment program, physical detox is only the first step. Whether a person is 16, 60 or 96, long-term sobriety means ongoing support, self-understanding and enthusiasm for the bigger picture of life.
Here are a few tips for maintaining sobriety that older adults may find particularly useful:
- If you’re retired, don’t just sit around watching television or brooding over the “good old days.” Find new ways to feel useful: sign up for some volunteer work, or join a crafts/games/travel group that lets you meet new people while continuing to grow your brain and skills. (Your local religious or community center, or a groups-and-classes website like Meetup.com, will have suggestions.)
- If you’re widowed or have otherwise lost someone you were long close to, make new friends through the same channels noted above.
- If you’ve developed health issues and can no longer participate in old-favorite activities, find new interests rather than feeling sorry for yourself. Many of the points above still apply to you and helping someone else is a particularly effective antidote for self-pity.
- If you need ongoing care, do everything you can to minimize loneliness: arrange for regular visitors, get active in an online group, or move to a communal residence with lots of activities.
Whatever else is going on in your life, things are never so bad that they need drive you back to drugs. With effective support and the proper attitude, you can still make “golden years” of your last decades!