A government report released earlier this year predicts that by 2020 the number of adults over age 50 in need of substance abuse treatment will double from the current annual average of 2.8 million to an estimated 5.7 million per year. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also reports that treatment admissions doubled in adults age 50 and over between 1992 and 2008.
Unlike teenagers and young adults who may abuse drugs and alcohol because they are seeking adventure, one of the leading causes of substance abuse for older adults is depression. According to the Administration on Aging, many of the changes that are associated with growing older in America can lead to depression. These changes involve a combination of physical, social, psychological and vocational issues.
The Depression Dynamic on Seniors and Drug Abuse
Depression is the most common emotional health condition among this age group, with nearly 7.7% of adults over 50 reporting that they currently have depression.
Seniors who are suffering from depression visit their doctor more often, stay in the hospital longer and use more medication than those without depression. Although Americans over the age of 65 represent only 13% of the population, they receive about one third of all prescribed medications. They are more likely to have multiple prescriptions and be prescribed long term medications. Both of these conditions have a potential for drug misuse and abuse. These problems may go untreated due to social isolation. In other cases, family members are in denial and are unwilling to admit that an elderly parent or grandparent is a substance abuser.
For many older adults, substance abuse issues that were ignored for decades can surface and grow to crisis proportions when combined with the effects of aging. Experts cite the historically high rates of substance abuse among baby boomers throughout their lifetimes. According to Dr. Westley Clark, director of SAMHSA’s center on substance abuse treatment, “The baby boom population has some experience with substance misuse and is more comfortable with these substances.”
At the same time that the need for senior substance abuse treatment is on the rise, there are now fewer facilities offering programs tailored for older adults than there were in 2004. Experts at SAMHSA recommend that older adults with substance abuse problems receive treatment that addresses the unique issues that occur during the senior years. Experts believe that age-specific treatment programs are more effective because they allow participants to focus on issues that are unique to their age. In mixed-age groups, older adults may be tempted to mentor younger addicts.