What are the barriers to addiction treatment for older adults?
Myths and attitudes
Getting older adults the addiction treatment they need and deserve often means overcoming myths and attitudes we have about older people and the myths that older adults have about themselves.
When talking about an older adult who abuses or misuses alcohol or other drugs, we’re likely to hear comments such as these:
- “My mom lost her husband and her house, and now she’s headed to a home for older people. She’s lonely, and drinking is the one joy she has in life. Why take it away from her?”
- “My dad is sixty-nine years old. Sure, he drinks too much; he always has. He’ll never change.”
Such attitudes from family members or loved ones pose stiff barriers to getting help for this population. The adult son who thinks drinking is his mother’s one and only joy is fooling himself. Chances are the drinking doesn’t make his mom happy at all. Instead, it’s probably causing her misery, depression, and shame and robbing her of the good health she could enjoy for many years to come. In addition, older adults who suffer from addiction may view alcohol or other substance use disorders as a moral weakness rather than a treatable disease. This will keep them isolated and impedes their chances of getting help.
Personal and physical loss
Personal losses can multiply quickly for older people: the death of a spouse or close friends, the loss of a job because of retirement, the loss of a home, the loss of self-worth, or the loss of children who move out of state.
If you are an older adult who has always been active, you may look forward to retiring but then find that it’s not as fulfilling as you expected. Suddenly you may lack a sense of purpose or feel that you’re not needed.
The physical effects of aging also make older adults more susceptible to chemical addiction. One example is the change in body mass and lowered efficiency in processing alcohol or prescription drugs. The result: older adults may drink or use other drugs less and feel a greater effect. Drugs can build to a toxic level more easily in bodies that function more slowly.
What issues should older adults consider in recovery?
Many older adults develop addiction later in life, after suffering losses or health problems. This is called late onset of addiction. Consequently, family members may have a more difficult time identifying addiction. Begin by watching for signs of substance use. Take note, for example, if your loved one undergoes a personality change after drinking, is frequently intoxicated, drinks alone, loses interest in hobbies and activities, neglects his or her personal appearance, or drinks while taking prescription medication in spite of warnings.
If you notice these signs, consider talking to an addiction counselor, psychologist, physician, or clergy member to decide whether further action is necessary. If it is, then you need to express your concern to the person directly. How can you confront this person without offending them? Be gentle and caring. Do not appear condescending, and avoid judgmental labels such as “alcoholic” or “addict.” You might simply state, “I’m concerned about your health and would like you to be assessed and evaluated by a professional.”
When approached in this way, many older adults may admit a need for help. But even if the person reacts negatively, don’t give up. You’ve planted a seed of recovery that can still grow.
Older adults can succeed in recovery; in fact, older adults in general have higher abstinence rates after treatment than their younger peers. Despite the myths, older adults continue to show that they can change and enjoy the benefits of sobriety.