Despite popular belief seniors tend to live wholesome lives, prevailing evidence has shown that many senior citizens are actually plunging into addiction. According to estimates from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), by 2020 the number of older adults who will require substance abuse treatment will increase from 1.7 million in 2003 to 4.4 million.
According to Brenda Iliff, executive director of the Hazelden treatment facility in Naples, FL, 17 percent of older adults struggle with drug or alcohol issues. Part of the increase can be attributed to the Baby Boomers, the huge population cohort between 1946 and 1964, charging into their retirement years leaving the workforce 10,000 at a time daily. Another attribution is the baby boomers attitudes towards the use of drugs. “This group experimented more with drugs when they were in their 20s and 30s, and may have a higher comfort level using drugs of all kinds than their parents did,” said Judy Fenster, associate professor at the Adelphi University School of Social Work, according to Main Street News.
What aren’t they getting high on? Illiff says she typically sees a trend of prescription drug abuse among older adults, especially opioids such as oxycontin, but she also shared that the “Boomers” still enjoy their alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine and have some fondness for illegal drugs such as marijuana and heroin. According to Illif, heroin tends to be easier to obtain than prescription drugs, which explains use of the drug among older adults.
To no surprise, many individuals from the Baby Boomer group grew up using marijuana, so for some arriving into the 60s age group seems to be a rerun of the smoke-filled 1960s. However, an older adult’s body does not function like a teen’s, as we age our bodies tend to process alcohol and drugs inadequately. A person at 30 could handle drinking two Manhattans at dinner, but a 65 year old may be fairly drunk after just one. The liver and kidneys do not process alcohol as efficiently as one grows older, causing the organs to do less well in getting rid of poisons. Another issue is that older adults are usually on a regimen of prescription medications which tend to interact poorly with drugs and alcohol.
And the question still stands, why are seniors from the Baby Boomer group getting stoned? According to Damon Raskin, a Los Angeles physician specializing in addiction, says it’s typically because they are bored, lonely, or depressed. He also added that substance abuse problems tend to be easier to hide among older adults, since these individuals typically retire they don’t exhibit signs of addiction such as missing work or decreased work performance. Also, many live alone making it challenging for a loved one or friend to notice.
Substance abuse among seniors can also be challenging for healthcare professionals to identify as common signs of addiction coincide with aging, such as memory loss and falling.
The biggest issue standing is the challenge of getting senior citizens into treatment. While younger adults may be concerned with job loss or getting into legal troubles for their substance use, older adults may not care about any of those factors. In addition, most senior citizens are in denial that there’s a problem present and unfortunately treatment cannot work until one admits to the presence of a substance use problem.
However, Iliff did make mention that when senior citizens actually go into senior addiction treatment, they respond well, follow the rules, and typically have high success rates.