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Aging Populations and the Rise of Addiction

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There’s no question that addiction is a serious problem in the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 20 million people suffer from substance abuse disorders. And while addiction knows no bounds, it disproportionately affects certain groups of people, including the elderly.

This silver tsunami is having a ripple effect on the country, including the mental health and substance abuse recovery field. As baby boomers age, they’re more likely to suffer from chronic conditions like depression and anxiety. They’re also more likely to develop an addiction.

What Is the Silver Tsunami?

The “silver tsunami” is a term used to describe the anticipated increase in the number of older adults in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people aged 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to over 95 million by 2060. This demographic shift will bring both opportunities and challenges for providers in the mental health and substance use recovery field.

The aging of the Baby Boomer generation is a significant driver of this increase. Members of the Baby Boomer generation are born between 1946 and 1964. As this generation ages, we can expect an increase in the number of people experiencing mental health and substance use disorders.

According to the National Institute on Aging, one in four adults aged 65 and older suffers from a mental health disorder. The most common disorders include anxiety, depression, and dementia. Substance abuse is also a concern, with older adults accounting for 12 percent of all drug overdoses in the United States.

The Problem of Addiction in Older Adults

The prevalence of substance abuse and addiction is increasing among older adults. A recent study found that the number of Americans aged 50 and older using illicit drugs has doubled since the start of the new millennium. This increase is driven in part by increased rates of prescription drug abuse. The same study found that prescription drug use among older adults increased by nearly 50% between 2002 and 2013.

The rise in substance abuse among older adults is a cause for concern because this population is more vulnerable to the negative consequences of drug use. Older adults are more likely to have chronic health problems, which can be exacerbated by substance abuse. They are also more likely to live alone, making it difficult to get help when needed.

Contributing Factors to Baby Boomer Addiction

In the past, addiction was often seen as a problem that only affected young people. However, we are now seeing a rise in addiction among older adults.  Several factors contribute to this trend:

Increased availability of drugs and alcohol. The internet makes it easy to purchase drugs online without ever having to leave home. Older adults also have more disposable income than younger people, so they can afford to buy drugs and alcohol more easily. Additionally, many baby boomers are taking prescription medications for pain or anxiety. These medications can be addictive, and it’s often easy to become dependent on them.

The changes that occur in our brains as we age. Older adults are more likely to experience loneliness and isolation, leading to depression and anxiety. These mental health problems can make it difficult to cope with life’s stressors, and many people turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Additionally, aging can cause changes in brain chemistry that make people more susceptible to addiction.

A history of substance abuse. Many baby boomers started using drugs in the 1960s and 1970s when drug use was more prevalent and socially acceptable. These individuals are now reaching an age where they are more likely to struggle with addiction.

The challenges of aging. As we age, we often experience losses – such as the death of a spouse or the loss of a job. These losses can be difficult to cope with, and many people turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. Additionally, age-related health problems can make life more difficult and lead to feelings of hopelessness.

Consequences of Baby Boomer Addiction

The increased use of substances among older adults can lead to several negative consequences, including:

Increased risk of accidents and injuries. Older adults are more likely to suffer from falls and other accidents when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Increased risk of chronic health problems. Substance abuse can lead to a variety of chronic health problems, such as liver disease and heart disease.

A decline in cognitive function. Substance abuse can cause memory problems and make it difficult to think clearly. This can make making decisions, solving problems, and remembering important information difficult.

Isolation from friends and family. Substance abuse can damage relationships and lead to social isolation. This can be particularly difficult for older adults who may already face loneliness due to retirement or the death of loved ones.

The Impact of the Silver Tsunami on Providers

The silver tsunami will significantly impact providers in the mental health and substance use recovery field. The aging population is more likely to need treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems, and new approaches will be needed to meet the needs of this population.

Innovative Care Models

One way to meet this challenge is to develop creative and innovative care models that are responsive to the needs of an aging population.  For example, provider organizations can develop geriatric-specific treatment programs designed to meet older adults’ unique needs. Additionally, it’s important to increase access to care by expanding our use of technology. Telehealth and other virtual care modalities can make it easier for older adults to get the help they need when they need it.

Adequate Staff & Resources

Providers must also be sure that they have adequate staff and resources to meet the growing demand. One way to meet this challenge is to partner with other organizations, such as senior centers to provide more coordinated and efficient services. Senior centers already provide a variety of services and activities for older adults and partnering with these organizations can help health care providers reach a larger population of seniors. In addition, senior centers can serve as a resource for information and referrals, making it easier for seniors to access the needed services.

Reducing Stigma

Finally, providers must work to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction in older adults. This stigma often manifests as a belief that addiction is a sign of moral failing or weakness. It can also lead to feelings of shame and isolation, preventing older adults from seeking the help they desperately need.  Reducing stigma starts with education and open dialogue. Providers need to educate older adults, their families, and the general public about addiction and its causes. Additionally, providers must be open and honest when talking about addiction. This will help to destigmatize addiction and make it easier for older adults to seek treatment.

Conclusion

The needs of an aging population are unique and complex. As we live longer and better lives, more and more people will require mental health and substance use services. Providers must be prepared to meet the demand for these services with adequate staffing, resources, and new approaches to care. In addition, we must work to reduce the stigma around mental illness and addiction. Only by coming together can we hope to meet the challenges of an aging population.

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