Programs Face Aging Population of Drug Users

Addiction treatment centers that traditionally focus on teenagers and young adults must develop new approaches as they face a growing population of older drug users, the New York Times reported on Dec. 16.

Those who were experimental teenagers in the counterculture 1960's progress to even more dangerous behaviors as they age and lose their health, their jobs and their loved ones.

Over 3 million adults age 50 or older had abused prescription medication or used marijuana, hashish, cocaine, crack, heroin, hallucinogens or inhalants during the previous year, estimated the 2004 federal survey of substance abuse, released in September.

"There are not enough geriatric specialists to handle this increased number of people who need services," said Millard L. Mays, delegate to the White House Conference on Aging and a member of the executive committee of the National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging.

Health problems resulting from prolonged substance use can exacerbate the decline in health older adults already experience.

Health professionals must address the practical treatment problems associated with older patients, such as difficulties with mobility or reading. Specialized therapy must be developed to address the emotional problems specific to older adults.

Substance use problems in older adults often go undetected, as isolation reduces the chance that unusual or unhealthy behavior will be noticed, according to Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York.

Family and friends are often more reluctant to interfere when an older person misuses drugs or drinks heavily, because they feel they would be robbing them of one remaining pleasure, said Julie E. Jensen, a researcher at the Washington Institute, which advises the public health system.

Loneliness, loss of loved ones, or a declining sense of purpose can also lead older adults to return to substances they used casually as young people, counselors say.

Unlike younger substance users, however, older adults thrive on treatment involving personal accounts of those in their age group, health professionals say.