Happy Hour in Assisted Living? Substance Abuse Among Seniors on the Rise

When grandpa says he’s going to rehab, the first thought is of physical rehabilitation after a hip replacement or lengthy illness.   Today, however, rehab may very well be for drug and alcohol counseling.

It’s not just senior living facilities that are seeing an increase in residents now that the baby boomers are coming of age. According to an article published by the Associated Press, the number of treatment (drug and alcohol) admissions has doubled between 1992 and 2008 and is expected to grow as the baby boomer generation ages.

Odyssey House in New York is one center offering substance abuse treatment programs designed specifically for the senior population. Peter Provet, Ph.D., President and CEO of Odyssey House, tells the Associated Press, “There is a level of societal denial around the issue. No one wants to look at their grandparent, no one wants to think about their grandparent or their elderly parent, and see that person as an addict.”

But in reality is there is a problem.  According to the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services AdmiHappy Hour in Assisted Livingnistration, one of every eight older adults sought help for substance abuse in 2008.

Alcohol has been reported by the experts to be leading substance of abuse, with nearly 60% of those seeking treatment over the age of 50 doing so because of alcohol.  Alarmingly, heroin accounted for 16% and cocaine for 11.4%, doubling and quadrupling their 1992 rates, respectively.

Many members of the Boomer generation have had past experience with substance abuse. In fact, a majority of those using into their Golden Years have had some relationship with their substance of choice for many years. It’s much less common for people like Don Walsh, a participant at Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, who says he didn’t develop a problem until after he retired. He replaced his 14-hour, stress-filled work days with wine-filled lunches and dinners. It wasn’t until he blacked out in his garage that he began treatment.

How will an increase in substance abuse among seniors impact long-term care providers?

Skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities may be reluctant to offer accommodations for those who are actively using, citing increased risk and liability to their other residents as reason for the denial.  But, it’s these exact types of facilities that may begin to see an increase in referrals for chronic users, especially since Medicare only offers coverage for out-patient treatment. With health complications, such as chronic liver disease and memory loss, as well as social isolation often accompanying the substance abuse, many of the aging abusers need assistance with their activities of daily living (ADLs), their desire and ability to be compliant with prescribed medications and their impulse control when it comes to using.

Are senior living facilities equipped to provide addictions counseling to residents?

Most long-term care providers aren’t equipped to handle substance abuse treatment as a primary diagnosis. Further, as senior living providers aim to meet the demands of today’s active adult lifestyles, happy hour and cocktail parties are becoming increasingly common in independent living and assisted living facilities. These types of activities will present unique challenges should one or more residents have a history of substance abuse.

However, with the number of substance abusers expected to continue rising, there is hope that more specialized treatment facilities will begin catering to the needs of the aging population.  Facilities that are already providing specific therapy programs are seeing success because their participants are able to relate to one another and remain focused on their own treatment, rather than playing mentor to younger addicts.  Dr. Provet and the staff at Odyssey House have watched such a program garner the highest level of success, with 85% of their participants completing the program during their last fiscal year.

One thing is certain: The statistics being reported are only from those who have begun to look for treatment and answers. Addiction knows no age, and the number of those truly being affected is limitless.

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