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John Ostwald's Then & Now Column: Help For Seniors Who Abuse Drugs

Recently, my friend Juan told his aging mother that she and her friends should smoke marijuana instead of taking all those pills for orthopedic, cardiovascular, emotional, gastrointestinal, and dermatological ailments. What do you think? Maybe some seniors wouldn’t be as nervous and wouldn’t have all the troublesome side effects of prescribed medications.

A few days after that conversation with Juan, I met a woman who is the director of the agency, Senior Hope Counseling, that provides drug outpatient services for seniors. I contacted her after our initial meeting so she could tell us more about the underpublicized issue of drug dependency among older citizens.

I asked Dr. Nicole Macfarland about the ages of her clients. She indicated that the average age is 67 but the agency has served individuals from 50 to 85. Next I inquired about commonly abused drugs. She stated that, “The most common substance is alcohol for this population. As the baby boomers come of age we will be seeing greater numbers of poly substance abusers.”

When asked about family support, Dr. Macfarland said “Family involvement can make a profound difference in an older addicted adult’s life. When an individual believes they are valued and needed in their family this can help them during their journey toward recovery. Oftentimes we ask our clients, ‘What type of legacy do you want to leave behind? Do you want to be remembered as Mom or Dad who died in a drunken stupor or do you want to be remembered as Mom or Dad who played a vital role in his/her adult children’s lives and grand children’s lives?’ Often our elder’s say they want to leave a positive legacy behind and that they want to improve the relationships they have with their families before they depart this world.”

Dr. Macfarland shared the following themes that have emerged over the years at Senior Hope to help to further our understanding of this frequently hidden problem.

• Elders benefit from being treated by individuals their same age and talking about age-related issues. They experience a true connection when they are able to relate to individuals who are at similar stages of the life cycle.

• Many patients we treat did not grow up in a time period where going to a psychiatrist and then attending an AA meeting was the norm. Stigma is very important when considering engagement and retention of older addicted adults who may be very ashamed of their addiction and/or mental health issue.

• Finding meaning and purpose in later life is so important. Often we hear from elders that they do not feel anyone needs them anymore and that they have nothing to do. This becomes very difficult for an individual who was vital in earlier years, engaged in a meaningful job, enjoying family and friends and financially stable. Increased depression, higher risk for suicide and increased usage of drugs/alcohol can all be tied into the lack of meaning and purpose an elder may experience later in life.

• Also critical to working with older addicted adults is the connection of services in the community. So often older adults may feel too tired, disabled, overwhelmed, and alienated to identify what services in the community may help them. The geriatric addictions provider can act as a liaison helping the older addicted adult to receive entitlements and connect with services in the community that may assist them’.

• Older addicted and mentally ill adults are at greater risk of financial exploitation emotional and/ or physical abuse by adult children as well as predators in the community. Additionally, vulnerable elderly often conceal the physical, emotional and financial abuse they are experiencing because they are afraid, lonely, isolated and unaware of the outreach services available to them in the community.

Our interview concluded with this final salient statement from Dr. Macfarland: “At Senior Hope, older addicted adults are treated with dignity, respect and kindness and helped to work toward greater meaning and purpose to enhance quality of life. It is a clinic committed to helping older addicted and mentally ill adults regain their dignity and self-respect.”

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John Ostwald is a professor at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.

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