With Aging Addicts, Substance Dependence Presents New Challenges

In the less than twenty years from 1992-2008, the rate of older adults (50+) admitted to substance abuse treatment has more than doubled in the United States. By 2020, the figures from 2000 are projected to double again, both in the U.S. and in Britain. Studies in both countries have found that as this large population of drug addicts continues to age, new challenges to their medical, psychological, and socioeconomic well-being rise as well.

One survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and another published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing shed light on these challenges. Most of the aging addicts they spoke to began experimenting with drugs as teenagers, some as a result of cultural trends at the time, and others in response to personal trauma such as child abuse or the death of a parent. Many were struggling with loneliness and social isolation, and the group presented higher-than-average rates of divorce and relationship breakdown, directly attributed to their drug use. In addition, these addicts were dealing with numerous health conditions that shortened their life expectancy, again often as a result of their years of drug use.

Perhaps most striking was this juxtaposition: the majority of aged-fifty-plus drug addicts said they wish they had never started using and would strongly discourage young people from trying drugs in the first place, yet many were still actively using the substances to which they’d been addicted for years, even with access to therapy, counseling, and substance abuse programs. According to UCLA Psychologist Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., many of the leading in-patient addiction programs don’t last long enough to be effective, especially if a person has been using drugs for years. Says Jaffe, a 30-day program isn’t long enough to change their habits, and even the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends 90-day programs, at a minimum. The longer a user is addicted, the more ingrained their habits become and the more likely they are to have become isolated from non-addicted friends and family in their lives. Effective addiction therapy needs to be based on what will be most effective in helping the addict recover, not on what length of time is most convenient, financially or otherwise.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • wilson


    September 14th, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    now this sure sounds like a challenge to the counseling profession.it is only natural that a trend that started decades ago with the youngsters of those days would now be older and this brings in a whole lot of complications in the course of cure as well.
    for one,the older people will have far more responsibilities than a younger person would and would therefore require better and more effective counseling because the family is depending on the person.

  • Shannon


    September 14th, 2010 at 3:27 PM

    If I were a 50 or 60 year old addict I would hate to look back and think of how much of my life was wasted and lost as a result of my addictions.

    Are there any reatment programs which are specifically designed with the older addict in mind? Seems like there would be some methods of treatment more effective with addicts of this age as they may have different issues to confront and overcome than younger addicts for example.

  • martha hennings

    martha hennings

    September 15th, 2010 at 12:17 AM

    “Perhaps most striking was this juxtaposition: the majority of aged-fifty-plus drug addicts said they wish they had never started using and would strongly discourage young people from trying drugs in the first place”

    I just got an idea from this. Maybe they could make a documentary or something with clips of these older people saying how being addicted to drugs has affected them negatively and these could then be screened in schools and colleges to discourage young people from trying drugs!You can thank me later for this idea,please implement this as it will save a lot of people’s lives from being ruined.

  • janna


    September 15th, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    I do not know how just 90 days could help you to overcome a lifetime of addiction and substance abuse. This is something that you may have been doing for more than half of your life in many instances. To overcome and beat this addiction there has to be a commitment on the part of the abuser and that aprt of the family to make a conscious effort every day not to use and to support the addict. That is what is needed more than any fancy rehab program that usually seems to lead right back to the cycle of addictiion everntually.

  • Chloe


    September 15th, 2010 at 5:17 AM

    clearly a practice or treatment method followed for young patients cannot be replicated for older patients because there would be a lot of differences between the two groups in terms of how the andy would react,how the mind would react and also the level of maturity.
    so it is important that newer methods are found and implemented for the older addicts.

  • Denise Baldassini

    Denise Baldassini

    January 7th, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    HELP, he is 39 years old, drugs all his life, I have been dealing with this for two decades as has he, help pushing 60 here, he is not well, goes to rehab has to leave because he is let go due to the insurance,(NONE) etc, etc,. It is killing him and ME(HIS MOM). He wants help, needs extended help, non available because of this economy etc etc, please he needs extended care which he wants HELP

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