New Wrinkle in Older Faces

Street drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol…If I asked you to describe a substance abuser, what do you visualize? Do you see a wrinkled, elderly man, or a gray-haired grandmother? Usually not, but it is time to take a closer look at the changing patterns of substance abuse.

Today’s blog post is difficult for several reasons. It tackles a topic that is easier to ignore. It is not pretty or funny or encouraging. It contains  some statistical data that is not recreational reading.

The post is from guest blogger *Linda*  who came up with the idea of an article introducing the topic of substance abuse in aging populations. She did all the hard work, the research, and most of the writing.

There are over seventy million baby boomers, and many are taking substance abuse into their senior years. Dramatic lifestyle changes, along with growing health problems, have led many people 50+ to turn to alcohol, prescription painkillers, and even heroin and cocaine to medicate their physical and mental pain.  Older adults are now hospitalized as often for alcohol-related problems as they are for heart attacks!

Some startling statistics from The Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The numbers are surprising and challenge the picture of older adult substance abusers as 1960s hippies who can’t give up their pot. Among the findings:

  • An estimated 17 percent of people aged 60+ struggle with substance misuse and addiction.
  • Among treatment facilities that receive some public funding, the proportion of treatment admissions for people aged 50 and older nearly doubled between 1992 and 2008
  • The proportion of older adult admissions reporting heroin as the primary substance of abuse more than doubled, from 7.2% in 1992 to 16% in 2008, and the proportion reporting cocaine as the primary substance of abuse quadrupled from 2.8% to 11.4%.

These shifts in demographics should alert health-care professionals to ask tough questions during routine exams. Drug use affects physical and mental health, and impacts the already-strained healthcare, mental health, and social services systems. Among these effects are mood, memory, pain, and sleep disorders , as well as cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

As people age, they can become more invisible, and it may be more difficult to see evidence of substance abuse in older adults’ day-to-day functioning especially if they become less engaged in society.

Why? One reason may be cultural–boomers grew up in an era when drugs may have had a certain allure. Another reason is economic with heightened anxiety about job security and retirement savings. A third reason is emotional–aging boomers may turn to illicit drugs to cope with grief and loss issues such as the death of a spouse or the end of a career.

Vital information is needed to understand the dynamics of addiction in older adults. Whether in self-care or as a caregiver, it is essential to:

  • Clearly distinguish between the signs of aging and the signs of addiction (many of which overlap)
  • Identify the indications of drug misuse and its progression to addiction
  • Understand the unique treatment needs of older adults

Arndt, S., Clayton, R., & Schultz, S. K. (2011). Trends in substance abuse treatment 1998-2008: Increasing older adult first-time admissions for illicit drugs. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 19(8), 704-711

Blow, F. C., Oslin, D. W., & Barry, K. L. (2002). Use and abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs and psychoactive medication among older people. Generations, 25(1), 50-54.

Crome, I., Sidhu, H., & Crome, P. (2009). No longer only a young man’s disease: illicit drugs and older people. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 13, 141-143.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2010). The TEDS report: changing substance abuse patterns among older admissions: 1992 and 2008. Retrieved from

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). The NSUDUH report: illicit drug use among older adults. Retrieved from





I love books. I love reading. I love the smell of inked pages. But some time ago, it dawned on me that my selves of books had become decorations rather than friends. Yes, those volumes that had comforted me in the middle of the night, pushed me into new thoughts, and challenged me word by word had become burdensome dust collectors.

I grabbed cardboard boxes from a nearby market and lined them up. I dug through closets, dressers, and bedside tables. And piling everything on the floor, my goal was one bookshelf full of books. I sniffled, wiped away tears, and yanked the books from my heart. Those first books were the most difficult, but when I was finished, only a small stack of books sat at the bottom of a box.

Renewing my efforts, I focused on what I could keep–poetry, gifts from friends and family, an almost complete set of Great Books of the Western World. The boxes filled. I called friends, the university bookstore, the English Department, and graduate students. No one was interested in my treasures, so I called Vietnam Veterans of America to come and pick them up.

Something interesting occurred. I felt free not bereft. No longer anchored to the past, simplifying this one aspect opened the future. Questions formed. If I were to build a library again, what books would I include? What are my interests at this stage of my life, and how do they differ from the years as student or teacher?

I have not purchased a new book in two years. But I have tried an internship with a hospital chaplaincy program and classes with the Master Gardener Program. After some deliberation, I hosted a women’s study based on a book I rescued from one of the boxes. I experimented with new produce in my garden, new recipes, and made some new friends. Would I have made these new pathways while clinging to old books?

Last year, Norman Lear gave an interview with National Public Radio’s show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

INTERVIEWER: I have to ask you something. You are, as we speak, 93 years old. So do you have any tips for those of us who would like to arrive at 93 as spry and as successful and happy as you are?

LEAR: What occurred to me first is two simple words. Maybe as simple as any two words in the English language – over and next […] And we don’t pay enough attention to them. When something is over, it is over…And we are on to next…And if there were – there was to be a hammock in the middle…Between over and next, that would be what is meant by living in the moment.

What is your Over? What will be your Next?