Page title

Substance Use Treatment for Older Adults

Main page content

For some older adults with substance use disorders, attending group therapy with many younger adults can be uncomfortable.

“Elders are in a different stage of life and grew up in a time when having an addiction or mental illness received a great deal of stigma,” explained Nicole MacFarland, executive director of Senior Hope, Inc., an elder-focused outpatient substance use program in Albany, New York. She noted that seeking help or talking about trauma, substance use, or mental illness may even have been discouraged.

Many of the people receiving care at Senior Hope have told MacFarland and her staff that they feel like the “mom” or “dad” in mixed-age group therapy sessions and feel like they end up catering to the needs of younger participants. They may also be uncomfortable with use of profanity by other group members. So Senior Hope offers small group elder-specific sessions that provide a comfortable space for attendees to discuss age-related or generational issues with peers. Professionals with expertise in geriatric substance use disorders lead the sessions.

“We believe one-size doesn’t fit all when it comes to addiction treatment,” she said.

William Rockwood, Ph.D., and his wife Adrienne founded the program in 2002 to meet the needs of people age 50 and older with substance use disorders. It remains the only senior-focused, nonprofit, free-standing outpatient treatment center licensed by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS).

The program is designed with accessibility in mind, MacFarland said. It is accessible for those using wheelchairs or other mobility aids. Program materials are printed in larger type to help those with vision impairments. Facilitators are trained to talk more loudly and slowly, and to design group sessions to accommodate older adults’ needs.

Many older adults with substance use disorders have medical co-morbidities. About two-thirds of those receiving care at Senior Hope developed substance use disorders before age 40, MacFarland said. As a result, they may have high blood pressure, liver disease, or neuropathies that can contribute to falls. Many are using opioid medications to treat chronic pain.

“Many have medical problems that impact their quality of life and, often times, they use substances to escape the pain and suffering,” she said.

Most Misused Substances Are Alcohol and Heroin

Alcohol remains the most common drug of misuse among those seeking help at Senior Hope. However, recently the proportion of people admitted to Senior Hope primarily for heroin use has increased from 11% (17 out of 155) in 2014 to 23.1% (six out of 26) so far in 2015, according to OASAS data. The trend mirrors what is happening through the state of New York where the number of admissions for people age 50 and older to outpatient treatment programs statewide for opioids as a primary substance of misuse has increased by 22% from 2,769 in 2010 to 3,370 in 2014, according to OASAS.

Longtime substance use may also have consequences for the individual’s family and housing status. For example, a 67-year-old man with an alcohol use disorder may turn to a local homeless shelter after divorcing and losing his job. Others may move from the home of one family member to another in lieu of permanent housing. MacFarland and her colleagues work with local service providers to secure more stable housing for those people in their care.

Common Risk Factors Are Trauma and Age-Related Concerns

Understanding some of the underlying concerns of older people with substance use disorders is a key part of MacFarland and her colleagues’ approach.

“We listen very carefully,” she said. She noted many older people report feeling they have lost a feeling of meaning and purpose at this stage in their lives. Others may be nursing old wounds. Surveys of participants have found that many suffered childhood trauma. Support groups have been created specifically to deal with these concerns. Learn more about trauma and violence.

For service providers working with older people, MacFarland said it is important to consider whether substance use might be contributing to age-related concerns. For example, a person with unexplained bruises, reduced hygiene, or the smell of alcohol on his or her breath may have mental and/or substance use disorders that require a referral for specialized care.

“Older adults may truly feel alone in their situation and not reach out for help,” MacFarland said. “There is hope and help for this vulnerable population. The first step is to identify the problem and begin the process of helping the elder reach out for support.”

This article was originally published to highlight the November 2015 theme of Drug Use.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 04/30/2020