The numbers of elderly drug addicts will swell as baby boomers, the first generation in which recreational drug use was widespread, reach old age, says the Washington Post. With age can come more isolation, more free time, and changing body chemistry, all of which can help turn a weekend habit into a daily compulsion. The National Institute of Drug Addiction held its first forum on the issue in September, and the Department of Health and Human Services has released a study predicting that the number of seniors with substance abuse problems will rise 150 percent by 2020.
Seniors’ systems may be less tolerant of drugs than those of younger people. They have more free time, and no small children or bosses to be accountable to. They have lost more in their lives, says Margaret Anne Lane, a counselor at Sentara Williamsburg Community Hospital, who began a substance abuse counseling program for people older than 60. Few older addicts seek treatment, but when they do decide to quit, they are generally more successful than younger ones are. In 1992, 77 percent of people older than 50 being treated for substance abuse were alcoholics; the rest had a drug problem or an alcohol and drug problem. By 2002, half of people older than 50 being treated had a drug problem. Only 2 percent of people older than 50 are considered addicts, compared with 4 percent to 5 percent of the general population, so little is known about addiction among the elderly — including whether they are more or less likely to relapse after treatment.