Addiction and Older People – the Forgotten Story

Addiction and older people – it’s a story that is often overlooked or silenced. Figures published in November by Public Health England and the NHS reveal the extent of alcohol and drug problems amongst older people. With significant unmet need, who picks up the pieces when older people suffer from untreated addiction? And why is it always worth investing in addiction treatment, no matter what age people are?

holding hands family therapy for addiction

Addiction and Older People – 2018 Statistics

On 29th November 2018, NHS Digital published figures on drug misuse in England. Their data shows that in the last 6 years, there has been a 32% increase in hospital admissions for drug poisoning in the over 55s. In comparison, hospitalisations due to drug poisoning increased by only 6% in the under 55s.

Alcohol addiction is also a significant issue for older people. In 2017-18, 12% of the alcohol-only treatment population were 60 or over. That’s 8,945 people.

According to Public Health England, however, only 1 in 5 people get the help with alcohol addiction they need. So, it’s possible that a further 36,000 people over 60 receive no professional help for alcohol addiction at all. To illustrate the scale of unmet need:

  • If our 36,000 older people with untreated alcohol addiction held hands, the line would stretch 18 kilometres.
  • That’s right across London. 18 kilometres is the distance from Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (East London) to Wimbledon Common (South West London).
  • It’s also right across Manchester. Our 36,000 older people would form a chain from the M60 Manchester Ring Road, east to west – passing through Manchester city centre.

Addiction and Older People – Alcohol Misuse and Other Health Priorities

Public Health England say that “alcohol misuse contributes (wholly or partially) to 200 health conditions, with many leading to hospital admission. This is due either to acute alcohol intoxication or to the toxic effect of alcohol misuse over time.” Their statistics show that alcohol misuse impacts on a wide range of local health priorities – including injuries in the over 65s, cancer, liver disease mortality and mental health.

Addiction and Older People – the Loneliness Factor

elderly people and addictionThere are 4 million lonely older people in the UK, many of whom spend Christmas alone.

According to Age UK, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone. Over a million older people say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.

At any age, social isolation and lack of support are factors in how addictions take hold and progress. Unchallenged by family or friends, older people who drink or take drugs often fall through the net. They only show up when they reach crisis point – as hospital admissions statistics, for example.

Addiction and Older People – the Role of Family, Friends and Communities

Many older people with addiction do still have family or friends in their life. Family members are often unpaid carers when older relatives are dependent on alcohol or drugs. Relatives help with everyday tasks – including shopping, cooking, washing and finances. They are on call when their relative has an accident due to alcohol addiction. They help with visits to the GP or hospital for alcohol-related diseases. The share of care is often unevenly split between relatives, particularly when family members live further apart.

For people who live with an elderly relative who drinks too much or takes drugs, they deal with the daily ups and downs in mental health. Alcohol and drug abuse cause depression and anxiety disorder, for example. They worsen pre-existing mental illness too. There is some community support available for relatives of people with substance addictions – Al-Anon family groups, for example. These groups tend to cluster in big towns and cities, however – so they aren’t always available in villages or small towns.

Communities also play a vital role. There are voluntary groups that do excellent work to reduce loneliness and reach out to vulnerable people. At Christmas time, there are often excellent initiatives made possible by volunteers and donations – including community meals, companionship and activities. Faith groups and charities do great work too – from Christmas services to coffee mornings.

Unfortunately, many older people still fall through the gaps. There is only so much that family, friends and communities can do when people are really in need of specialist addiction help.

Addiction Treatment for Older People is the Answer

Whatever the age – 55, 75 or 95 – the answer to addiction is always treatment and ongoing support. This is because people with untreated addiction will show up eventually – usually in crisis. Waiting for older people to become emergency cases in A&E departments, or frequent hospital in-patients due to illness or injury is completely unsustainable.

With our ageing population, early intervention is key. It’s about preventing the escalating consequences of addiction, which become more expensive and difficult to treat. Detox and rehabilitation, day programmes, counselling and interventions are all good options for older addicts. It’s also essential to train GPs and health professionals, who are in regular contact with older people, to recognise addiction in the early stages. GPs are particularly well placed to spot prescription drug addiction, an illness that still can go unnoticed for years.

If you’re suffering from addiction in later life, please get in touch with Addiction Helper for an assessment and treatment options. If an older relative is affected by addiction, contact us for help. We can also advise you on the best addiction treatment for older people with a dual diagnosis – this is where they suffer from addiction as well as a mental illness like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.

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