Understanding Substance Use Disorder in Older Adults

By Sonya Schweitzer

Substance Use Disorder (SUD) in older adults is an increasingly critical issue that demands our attention and understanding. In Washington, DC, and across the nation, this problem is often overlooked, leading to inadequate support for those affected. As we delve into this topic, it’s essential to recognize the unique challenges faced by the older population in managing substance use disorders. In this blog, we will look at contributing factors and treatment solutions.

Causes of Substance Use Disorder in Older Adults

Addiction in individuals over 55 is on the rise. The combination of social isolation, health, and increased economic concerns has exacerbated this issue, leading to heightened substance use among seniors. The National Institute on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NIAAA) reports that up to 17% of adults over 60 struggle with alcohol and prescription drug abuse.

What are the leading risk factors for SUD in older Americans?
Key risk factors include:

  • Chronic pain and physical disabilities
  • Changes in living or care situations
  • Loss of loved ones and a network of support in the community
  • Forced retirement or inability to find employment
  • Poor health status and chronic illnesses
  • A history of substance use disorders or mental illness

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) highlights that alcohol is the most used drug among this demographic, with about 65% of people aged 55 and older engaging in high-risk drinking. At Samaritan Inns in Washington DC, clients over the age of 55 also seek help with opioid addiction or a combination of alcohol and opioid addiction. Chronic pain and health conditions may be a factor in the onset of a substance
use disorder in older adults, but substance abuse can also lead to new and increased health impacts.

Health Impacts of Substance Use Disorder in Older Adults

For older adults, substance use disorders can lead to a range of severe health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, and cognitive impairments. Drugs and alcohol can exacerbate existing conditions like mood disorders, lung and heart issues, and memory problems.

To understand more about the impacts of SUD on health, you can read a recent post on our blog, “The Impact of Substance Addiction on Your Health.” The aging process also makes seniors more vulnerable to the effects of substances, with slower metabolisms and heightened brain sensitivity to drugs. Often, family, friends, and medical professionals confuse the symptoms of aging with the signs of an addiction. Detection and treatment approaches for substance use disorder in older adults are complex. Keep reading for signs of addiction and treatment approaches from Samaritan Inns.

Treatment Approaches for Older Adults

Older adults often face isolation from family, friends, and social circles of years past. Stresses from an unknown financial or medical future are a heavy burden. And older adults feel the impact of addiction in unique ways, both physically and mentally. Tailoring a treatment program to the age of the adult proves effective. Before discussing the treatment approaches for older adults, it is helpful to review the signs of addiction in those over 55 years old:

  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Mood changes and irritability
  • Erratic behavior
  • Poor hygiene
  • Unexplained bruises from unreported falls

For additional signs of addiction, read a Samaritan Inns’ blog, 10 Signs Of Addiction, Recognizing the Telltale Symptoms.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), effective treatment for older adults includes:

  • Cognitive behavioral approaches
  • Group-based approaches
  • Individual counseling
  • Medical/Psychiatric approaches
  • Marital and family involvement/family therapy
  • Case Management/Community-linked services and outreach

These treatments provide a supportive environment to address substance abuse and related challenges, encouraging positive changes in interpersonal relationships. To find out about the benefits of a supportive environment, group-based approaches, and community involvement in treating older adults, we turn to Samaritan Inns.

Samaritan Inns’ Three-Phase Recovery Program

In Washington, DC, Samaritan Inns offers a specialized three-phase recovery program. Their Intensive Treatment Program, certified by the DC Department of Behavioral Health, is the first phase of our Treatment and Recovery Continuum. It serves adults aged 21 to 65 seeking freedom from homelessness and addiction. The program includes education on addictive behaviors, the 12-step principles, individual and group counseling, and case management. At Samaritan Inns, we understand the unique needs of substance use disorder in older adults in Washington, DC. Our compassionate staff is committed to helping individuals rebuild their lives through a holistic approach that includes nutrition, exercise, education, and accountability.

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