Substance Abuse Treatment for Seniors

According to the NIDA, “Persons aged 65 years and older comprise only 13 percent of the population, yet account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription medications in the United States.” Because seniors have more health issues to treat as they become older, they also are prescribed more medications and are put on more long-term treatment regimens, which can sometimes lead to drug abuse and addiction.

Substance abuse treatment for seniors should be especially catered to the needs of older adults while also being sensitive to their situations. In some cases, seniors avoid treatment and their loved ones allow them to, but substance abuse treatment for seniors can help older individuals live more fulfilling and happier lives.

What are the Needs of Seniors in Substance Abuse Treatment?

Older patients often experience many issues that are concurrent with their drug abuse issues. These problems and disorders should be dealt with in substance abuse treatment if possible so that the individual patient can have a better chance at recovery and a better outcome after treatment. The common issues experienced by seniors in substance abuse treatment are:

elderly substance abuse

Rehab programs for seniors offer high quality care, attending to each older adult’s individual needs.

  • Comorbid illnesses
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Bipolar disorder
    • Alzheimer’s disorder
    • Parkinson’s disorder
  • “Age-related changes in drug metabolism”
  • The use (or abuse) of “OTC medicines and dietary supplements, which (in addition to alcohol) could compound any adverse health consequences resulting from prescription drug abuse”
  • Little to no support system

Often, older adults who begin abusing drugs are living alone or have lost their partner or spouse. In some cases, adult children of seniors with substance use disorders may deicide to ignore the substance abuse presented by the older adult because they “don’t want to upset them” or because they feel “they don’t have much longer anyway.” This kind of thinking can be counterintuitive to the treatment seniors need to give them a proper recovery from substance abuse and should be addressed in treatment.

In many cases, inpatient treatment facilities may be a necessary part of substance abuse treatment for seniors as these individuals experience many issues where they may need constant supervision or around-the-clock care. If this is the case, inpatient treatment is beneficial, but outpatient treatment may be fine if there isn’t a need for that kind of controlled treatment.

What are the Treatments in Seniors Substance Abuse Treatment?

The treatments offered to seniors in substance abuse treatment facilities are often similar to those offered to younger individuals. According to the NIH Senior Health, “The first step in a substance treatment program is often detoxification (“detox”), the process of allowing the body to get rid of the substance under supervised care.” Then, both medications and therapy can be used to treat the addiction itself.

In addition, seniors may be given specific therapies that are more catered to their age-appropriate needs. Also medications that have extreme side effects will likely not be prescribed to senior individuals because of the other health effects they are likely experiencing.

The NIH Senior Health states that the four main types of behavioral treatments or therapies offered to seniors are:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy 
    • “Seeks to help patients recognize, avoid, and cope with the situations in which they are most likely to abuse drugs” (NIDA)
  • Motivational interviewing 
    • Aims to help people recognize the need for treatment so that they may actively participate in their own recovery
    • This can be especially helpful for older adults who may have felt that their drug abuse didn’t matter or wasn’t particularly harmful because of their age
  • Motivational incentives
    • Rewards offered to patients for coming to their sessions and staying abstinent from drugs
  • Group therapy 
    • “Preferably with one’s own age group, (and sometimes gender),” and allows patients to discuss their issues with drug addiction with other individuals who understand and are able to relate to them (NIH Senior Health)

Does Substance Abuse Treatment Work for Seniors?

Yes. Relapse is always a possibility, and according to the NIH Senior Health, “For older adults the process can be complicated by other illnesses and life changes,” but that should not stop them from attending treatment and trying to live better, happier, and healthier lives. Attending substance abuse treatment has shown strong effects on all individuals of every age group and population, and seniors are able to benefit from substance abuse treatment too.

In some cases, seniors may be put on a long-term treatment regimen in order to allow them to be comfortable while still not abusing drugs. For example, some seniors who abused prescription opioids might especially benefit from long-term maintenance on buprenorphine or methadone in order to stay off dangerous opioid abuse while still being maintained and relieved of any pain, withdrawal symptoms, cravings for the drug, etc.

Why is Substance Abuse Treatment so Important for Seniors?

Like every population where substance abuse can be found, treatment for this issue must be successfully discovered and tested in order to help many individuals who are struggling with abuse. According to a study from the NCBI, “Substance use disorders, if not diagnosed and treated, may ruin the last stage of life for countless Americans.”

Prescription drug abuse is a particular danger among older individuals, but this is not the only issue. It was thought by many for quite a long time that drug abusers and addicts do not live long enough to reach old age, but that is not the case. And, as time goes on, there will be even more individuals who will live longer and have the potential of bringing their addictions into their senior years with them. “Many Americans who are now young or middle-aged will carry their use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs with them into old age – and they will also live longer.”

For these reasons and more, it is important that seniors be given the same chance as substance abusers in other age groups to change their lives for the better and receive substance abuse treatment. Their specific needs should be represented as well in order to make sure that they receive the best treatment plan possible.