The Aging Population & Addiction

Substance abuse among an older population, particularly of alcohol and prescription drugs, is one of the fastest-growing health problems in the United States.

In my former career as a commercial real estate agent I negotiated an office lease for the human resources department of the Postal Service in Tampa, and one day while we were looking at space the H.R. Director informed me the average Postal Service worker dies within 2 ½ years of retiring.

It turns out there are a number of reasons for this unfortunate statistic. Postal Service employees have physically demanding jobs that include, moving packages, walking, organizing deliveries and interacting with customers. Upon retiring their physical activity drops considerably. So instead of walking and moving 5 days a week, they’re now sedentary which of course leads to weight gain, health problems, and I will argue increased drinking.

I shouldn’t single out Postal Service employees because this pattern is probably true for most people who retire. They go from having a professional purpose that demands their mental and physical attention during the week to have a lot of unstructured time.

I am going to guess this is a bigger problem for men than women. Women are good at connecting with other women. They like spending time together and aren’t afraid to pick up the phone and make plans. Men, on the other hand, are really bad at this; we prefer to entertain ourselves which is to say we like to watch TV alone.

Not working means less connection with other human beings and spending more time isolated, which is incredibly dangerous in the context of addiction. Regardless of age, learning how to not isolate is a skill rehab centers focus on.

Isolation can be the kiss of death, especially for people struggling with addiction and or mental illness. The best prescription for someone attempting to recover from a brain-related disease such as addiction is to stay active and to regularly interact with other people. In the addiction field, we liken isolation to mold thriving in dark and damp places. The antidote for both mold and mental illness is exposure to sunlight.

According to Brenda Lliff, Executive Director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Naples, Florida, the incidence of addiction in older adults (55+) is rising because of access to more drugs for pain (physical and emotional, as well as a decreased ability to metabolize what they used to use without any problems.

Another key factor is simply the number of older Americans entering the population. Over 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day which is sometimes referred to as the Silver Tsunami. Some people from this generation grew up a time when experimenting with drugs was fashionable during the Vietnam era and it’s easier for them to revert back to this once forgotten habit.

Older Americans (75+) are also afflicted with alcohol and drug addiction but try harder to hide it because they associate addiction as being shameful and a moral failing. Fifty-percent of the patients at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Naples is over 55 years old.

According to another statistic from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 63% of addiction cases involving older adults are stemmed from depression and anxiety, and approximately 30% are from financial concerns.

Another contributing factor is loneliness and the absence of the person's adult children and grandchildren who live far away, or because a spouse passed away, leaving them with no one to be accountable too. When the children finally catch wind of their parents drinking or prescription pill addiction the alarm is sounded.

The goods news is older adults who seek treatment for addiction usually recover faster than young people because they have a lifetime of positive experiences to draw on providing too much physical and psychological damage hasn’t been done.

On the other hand, it may be harder to intervene on an older adult than a financially dependent teenager or a spouse who is afraid to lose custody of their children or someone who is facing consequences at work. Seniors aren’t reliant on other people unless there are health problems or a lack of independence because of financial hardship.

When faced with an intervention an older adult may simply say they don’t need your money or you can’t kick me out of here, I own this house. An adult child from another culture may have an even harder time intervening on a parent if they’ve been taught to respect and fear their elders.

From the interventionists' standpoint, there is always something we can do to compel a senior to accept treatment. I can see how this may be especially difficult for some older men who are used to being in charge and don’t have a history of relying on others for help. Ego and pride are common barriers to getting help many people, but I can see how this may be especially true for a proud man.

If you’re planning an intervention for an older adult it’s important to be thoughtful about the process and understand how to inspire them to accept help. Picking the appropriate treatment center with an older census is important. A 70-year-old man who served in the Air Force and has worked his entire life to provide for his family is not going to be happy if he finds himself surrounded by 22-year-old kids blowing vape smoke in his face.

The same is true of a grandmother who has worked hard her entire life raising children and keeping a house; she will also be hard-pressed to want to be around young girls with head to toe tattoos.

Identifying the appropriate treatment program is important for anyone regardless of age but it may be particularly important when it comes to older adults. It's a little easier with kids because you can threaten consequences and don't have to be overly concerned about their comfort, but there too, you have to be careful to pick accordingly.

If you're facing an addiction problem with you an older family member it’s worth the investment of engaging an interventionist who is experienced in working with older people and who can help identify the appropriate level of care and help get them into treatment safely.

South Florida Intervention provides solutions for families struggling with the devastating effects of addiction and helps get people into treatment. Marc Kantor is the founder of South Florida Intervention and can be reached at