Across the board, people battling mental health issues are far more likely to suffer from problems with substance use than the general population. One-third of all people with mental health issues and one-half of all people with severe mental illness suffer from a dual diagnosis with coexisting substance abuse. Of these populations, people with existing medical conditions and those dealing with financial burdens are far more likely to fall prey to substance abuse as a form of self-medication. Baby boomers and older adults increasingly fall into these categories as they begin to encounter serious health issues and attempt to stay afloat after the economic recession while potentially managing loneliness, depression, and lose of loved ones or life partners.
As substance use among teens and youth has begun to fall within the past few years, the opposite is true of older adults. Currently an estimated 2.8 million older adults have alcohol abuse issues and that number is only expected to rise, reaching 5.7 million by 2020. Alcohol is the primary problem substance for the age range 50 to 64, but the use of illicit drugs is also increasing, jumping 122% from 2002 to 2013. Considering the country’s current heroin and prescription drug epidemics, we can expect these numbers to further expand in the coming years.
Barriers to service burden all clients seeking help for mental health and addiction, but for baby boomers and older adults, unique barriers exist relating to misconceptions around treatment effectiveness and the fact that many signs of chemical dependency are similar to common symptoms of aging.
A common myth exists among clinical professionals which warns that as a person becomes older, the effectiveness of potential treatment is significantly diminished. In spite of evidence suggesting that substance use treatment for older adults can produce outcomes similar to those for younger generations, this misconception still persists and can create bias in addiction treatment for this at-risk group. Baby boomers and older adults also find themselves buying into misconceptions around addiction and the effectiveness of treatment. Seniors often find it difficult to identify their drinking and substance use habits as excessive. This is not uncommon for anyone battling addiction, but when combined with co-existing mental health issues and chronic physical health conditions, which often compound with age, older adults become much more susceptible for viewing substance use as part of their daily care routine making it very difficult for them to seek help on their own.
Common symptoms of aging can also prevent a senior from seeking professional help and can even prevent a clinician or primary care professional from properly identifying substance addiction in a client. Disorientation and memory loss, commonly defined as symptoms of aging can also signal excessive substance use, and are easily confused with dementia, medication mix ups and diabetes.
To properly diagnose and treat this uniquely vulnerable population, providers across the country are beginning to take a more tailored approach, and are designing and offering treatment programming specially designed to meet the needs of older adults suffering from dual diagnosis. This type of targeted programming empowers specialized clinicians to examine every aspect of an older adult’s wellbeing and will create the most impactful treatment opportunities for this often overlooked population.
Beyond providers, state and federal human services agencies, along with mental health and addiction advocacy groups will have to take a more active role in education around this issue. This means that agencies must begin to create targeted outreach campaigns prominently featuring seniors as a new face of addiction. The current addiction outreach landscape primarily features youth and younger adults, leaving seniors unable to see themselves within these messages. Additionally, revamped outreach campaigns must reach seniors through more traditional mediums, including print, in-person, television and phone instead of online and through social media. This type of education could help seniors better recognize addiction within themselves and actively seek local resources that they were previously unaware of.
Together, specialized treatment programming and more relevant outreach efforts could begin to dismantle many of the existing barriers to service facing baby boomers and older adults, while creating an opportunity to improve the treatment of dual diagnosis in seniors for generations to come.