Boomers' Addictions Present Treatment, Recovery Challenges

By Colleran, Carol | Aging Today, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Boomers' Addictions Present Treatment, Recovery Challenges

Colleran, Carol, Aging Today

Marketers are racing to target the buying power of the graying boomers, the wealthiest generation in history, with a household income of $750 billion annually. As youth, many in this age wave assumed that health, longevity and unlimited choices were legacies that far outstripped their parents' reality. Yet, shadows loom on that horizon. As certainly as aging boomers will challenge the current capacity of the healthcare system, their numbers also will elevate the prevalence of those with addiction.

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration studies, illegal drug use by those in their 50s increased by more than 60% between 2003 and 2005. Will these numbers swamp the treatment system? Other pertinent questions include: What is the best way to prevent late-onset addiction for boomers? And how will treatment specifically address the younger senior population that is chemically dependent?


At Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., we have long treated older-adult addiction within a separate treatment program and residential area. We use detoxification and holistic approaches designed to address mental, medical, physical, emotional and generational issues. The emerging group entering later life represents a different history, drug and alcohol profile, and set of values-and even different medical and mental health diagnoses-man previous generations.

The profile of boomers and those a bit older that we see at Hanley Center is hot that of the so-called traditional older adult. For those from about ages 50-62 (or even a bit older), alcohol is still the drug of choice, but preferences skew to both alcohol and illegal drugs. More than half of those ages 50-54 have used opiates, cocaine, marijuana or methamphetamines at some point in their lives.

Those who come to Hanley Center from the 50-plus group often suffer with dual diagnoses, such as depression and anxiety, and bipolar disorder. In addition, hepatitis C is now showing up in this age group, as are other serious medical conditions such as diabetes type 2, cardiac disease, hypertension, chronic pain, lung disease or cancer.

Treatment plans need to address these differences for today's 50-plus group while also allowing for the slower detoxification and longer treatment process that older bodies require. The one constant, of course, is that despite reports to the contrary, even boomers do age. The process of aging plays a hand both in the development of co-occurring disorders and in the fact that an older human body simply can't handle the same amount of alcohol as a younger one. Alcohol is water soluble, and the total percentage of body water declines for men and women as they age. Both the 50-plus group and those who are older need medically based treatment, but the generational gap indicates the need for different therapeutic approaches.


Traditional older patients (those ages 62-plus) have primarily abused alcohol or medications. Late-onset addiction accounts for a third of all older-adult addiction, and major transitional life events-such as the loss of a loved one or of a job through retirement, voluntary or otherwise-can be powerful risk factors for addiction. Loneliness, boredom, chronic pain, change in financial status, change in geographic location and loss of a sense of purpose are all pitfalls for addiction.

Long-term addiction in older adults has usually played havoc with the person's family and personal life, as well as his or her physical health. Cognitive damage may have occurred. Addiction often goes undiagnosed because many symptoms of age-related disorders are similar to symptoms of addiction, such as loss of memory, shakiness, isolation, numerous falls, sleep problems and other symptoms. An addicted person also may be anxious or depressed and may neglect personal grooming.

Generational values are key to treatment in every aspect of addressing older adults with chemical dependencies, from assessment to any needed intervention. …

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