Older adults sometimes face a different set of addiction-related issues than younger people, and because of this, they may need or want a more specialized treatment program. National survey data collected in 2018 indicates that more than 1 million adults ages 65 and older live with a substance use disorder (SUD).1 As our understanding of the age-related differences in addiction develops, there is increased demand for rehab services for older adults as well.
In this article, we will address the various signs and symptoms of alcohol use among seniors, describe specialized addiction rehab for seniors, and explain how to find a rehab facility for seniors in your area.
Alcohol and Substance Use Among Seniors
Many factors can lead to substance misuse among older adults. One generational factor may include the fact that the aging baby boomer population were exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age, which is a known risk factor for developing a substance use disorder later in life.2 Further, as adults age, their brains can become more sensitive to the effects of drugs and alcohol, making them more vulnerable to substance misuse and the adverse consequences of such use.1
Older adults are also more likely to experience mood disorders or memory changes, and are more likely to use alcohol or other substances to cope with life events, such as losing loved ones or social isolation.1,3
A review of the current literature about alcohol and substance use among seniors shows the following trends:
- A 2017 paper comparing rehab admission data found that 80% of patients ages 55 and older reported that they started drinking before the age of 25.2
- That same year, around 11% of adults over age 65 reported they were binge drinkers, meaning 4 or more drinks in around 2 hours for women and 5 for men.4,11
- An estimated 4.4 million older adults will have received substance use treatment in 2020.2
- During the first 4 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a study of drinking behavior in American adults found that people ages 65 and older represented the highest sustained increase in daily drinking compared to other age groups.5
Addiction Treatment and Rehab for Older Adults
When considering alcohol addiction treatment for seniors, there are other factors to consider in the pursuit of appropriate care. For instance, older adults commonly have other conditions that may be worsened by substance use, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or congestive heart failure.4 These comorbid conditions may increase the risk of a senior’s substance use problem being overlooked by medical professionals, who may attribute symptoms to another condition or an age-related cause.1 Older adults may also have a slower metabolism which may require adjustments to medication dosages and result in longer-lasting withdrawal symptoms that may require longer detox treatment.2,6
Older adults may also face a number of unique barriers to treatment, such as:6
- Lack of reliable transportation.
- Physical limitations or mobility issues.
- A relatively decreased support network due to factors such as retirement, loss of friends and loved ones, reduced activity outside of the home, and other potential sources of increased social isolation.
To address these barriers, many elderly rehab centers have adapted to deliver the same evidence-based treatment as other integrated programs in different ways. These include:6
- Delivering treatment in home or via telehealth to help clients with transportation challenges.
- Giving information in multiple formats to address differing levels of physical and cognitive functioning.
- Choosing a space that is accessible to clients with differing mobility needs.
- Helping to strengthen current social networks and encourage use of social supports to reduce isolation.
In fact, research indicates that older adults are more likely to complete alcohol treatment than their younger counterparts, and they tend to have the same or better outcomes.6
Identifying Addiction in Older Adults
Compulsive substance use and addiction can develop and present very differently in older adults due to the effects of comorbidities, age-related changes in memory and cognition, and changes in their social support. Addiction and related issues may be more likely to be overlooked when symptoms of problematic substance are sometimes confused with these other age-related changes.1
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic, relapsing disease typically characterized by not being able to stop drinking no matter the negative consequences.7 Symptoms may include:7
- Drinking more alcohol or for a longer time period than intended.
- Failed attempts to cut down or stop using alcohol.
- Feeling cravings to drink.
It is worth noting that while these signs may be seem obvious to you, only an addiction professional such as a counselor, social worker, or doctor can diagnose someone with an AUD.
Does Insurance Cover Rehab for Older Adults?
Insurance may cover AUD treatment for older adults, depending on the plan’s coverage limitations and the type of treatment. Medicare, a state-funded insurance, covers many adults ages 65 and older if they or their spouse worked for 10 years or more and paid Medicare taxes during that time.8
If you or your spouse are a veteran, then addiction treatment may be covered through VA benefits as well.9 If you live in a low-income household, you may be eligible for Medicaid insurance.10 For people who are uninsured, many treatment programs offer sliding-scale or payment plans or may have funding available to cover your fees.
How to Find a Rehab Facility for Seniors
It is never too late to address alcohol or other mental health disorders. If you or a loved one needs professional help for addiction recovery, evidence-based rehab centers can help fully address both the causes and effects of this life-altering condition. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of evidence-based alcohol addiction treatment in the United States. Contact us at 1-888-685-5770 or get a text today for a free, private consultation about rehab for seniors and which options might be right for you.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July). Substance use in older adults drugfacts.
- Chhatre, S., Cook, R., Malik, E., and Jayadevappa, R. (2017). Trends in substance use admissions among older adults. BMC Health Services Research, 17(1), 1–8.
- Kelly, S., Olanrewaju, O., Cowan, A., Brayne, C., & Lafortune, L. (2018, January 25). Alcohol and older people: A systematic review of barriers, facilitators and context of drinking in older people and implications for intervention design. PLOS One, 13(1), 1–14.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s effects on health: special populations & co-occurring disorders: older adults.
- Nordeck, C. D., Riehm, K. E., Smail, E. J., Holingue, C., Kane, J. C., Johnson, R. M., … & Thrul, J. (2022). Changes in drinking days among United States adults during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Addiction, 117(2), 331–340.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Treating substance use disorder in older adults. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series No. 26, SAMHSA Publication No. PEP20-02-01-011. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014, September 11). Who is eligible for Medicare?.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2022, February 15). Substance use treatment for veterans.
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. (n.d.). Beneficiary resources.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021, April). Understanding alcohol use disorder.