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Older adults and seniors have little in common with people in their 20s and 30s, so it's not surprising that experts recommend age specific treatment for older adults when possible.

But excellent addiction treatment for older adults requires more than age homogeneity. Treatment programs that excel with this demographic are set up to meet the specific needs and wants of their clientele.

Tailored programming can make the difference between continuing treatment and treatment drop-out, and ultimately - between success and a reduction in substance abuse, or failure and a continuation of the problem.

Whether you're looking for yourself or searching for a loved one, finding high quality addiction treatment tailored to the needs of older adults and seniors takes determination.

As a starting place it's helpful to at least know what you're looking for and how to go about evaluating any treatment programs under consideration.

7 Things to Look for in an Addiction Treatment Program for Older Adults and Seniors:

Be Supportive and Non Confrontational

Forget scared-straight and other in your face tactics!

Only a very small percentage of seniors with substance abuse problems ever get any kind of formal addiction treatment, and research suggests that 2 reasons for this under-representation are a fear of failure and a fear of social stigma.

  1. Fear of failure - Older adults with long histories of use have likely tried to stop or control their drinking or drug use on multiple occasions. Recurring failure to control use can result in a sense of hopelessness and a fear that any new efforts will also end in failure.
  2. Stigma - People from many decades past viewed addiction as a moral failure and people who could not control their drinking or drug use faced considerable social stigma.1

People already feeling ashamed of themselves do not need confrontation and degradation and people feeling hopeless and scared need encouragement and support - not pressure to succeed at risk of sanction!

Substance abuse generally degrades physical and mental health and unresolved physical and mental health issues reduce the odds of addiction treatment program completion and increase the odds of relapse.

A Canadian study of older adults and seniors in an alcohol treatment program found that older alcohol abusers were far more likely than seniors from the general population to suffer from age-related health complaints, for example:

  • 11% had cancer, which was 250% the rate of older adults and seniors without substance abuse problems
  • 20% had depression
  • 33% had mobility problems
  • 28% had memory problems
  • 1 in 8 had liver disease
  • Only 3% of people in the program were considered 'healthy'2

Addiction treatment should meet the holistic needs of the individual, and for many seniors and older adults, this means referrals and access to outside physical and mental health services.

Focus on the Social and Psychological Needs of Older Adults (Loneliness, Loss, Depression etc)

Many older adults initiate or accelerate substance abuse as a response to the developmental challenges of aging, such as:

  • The changing roles of retirement
  • Dealing with ill health or a loss of mobility
  • The loss of a spouse or partner
  • Depression related to major life changes

Effective substance abuse programs will address the developmental challenges of aging as they relate to substance abuse and when applicable, teach self care or positive attitude skills which can alleviate some of the distress of such changes.

Focus on Rebuilding Social Support Networks

Older adults with substance abuse programs often become socially isolated from friends and family.

Helping older adults in recovery reconnect and reconcile with loved ones and forge new social networks is necessary for lasting improvement.

Teaching Speed and Content Should Be Matched to an Older Audience

Older adults recovering from alcohol or drug addiction may have greater memory and cognitive deficits so the pace of delivery needs to be matched to the abilities of the audience. 

Additionally, program staff need to:

  • Account for increased visual and auditory impairment in all presentation materials and environments
  • Minimize distractions during group or education sessions, as these can be quite disruptive to an older audience
  • Be aware that some older adults may find sitting in one place for long sessions physically uncomfortable

The Program and Staff Need to Offer Respect

Staff should be qualified and experienced in working with older adults, but more than this, staff need to enjoy working with seniors and create an environment of respect that is mindful of the expectations and cultural values of an older audience, for example:

  • Staff should always speak directly to the client about treatment matters, even when other family members are present and involved
  • Staff should respect requests to see doctors and specialists and try to accommodate these requests as quickly as possible
  • Staff should address people by formal title (Mr. Mrs. etc.) unless they ask permission to be more informal
  • Staff should strictly avoid any behaviors that could be interpreted as patronizing or condescending
  • Staff should make informal conversation whenever possible, to humanize the relationship

Program Duration Should Be Individualized and Flexible

A set in stone program duration does not effectively serve a population of people who will learn and recover at very individual rates of speed.3

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Page last updated Jun 16, 2015

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