Baby Boomers: The Changing Face of Older Adult Addiction

By Drug Rehab

According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, by the year 2030 approximately 20 percent of people in the United States will be over the age of 65. These elderly baby boomers will be more diverse, less likely to have support from family, and more likely to have substance abuse problems than were previous generations.

Preventing, treating, and managing addiction among this generation will require cultural competence by providers and government agencies. In addition, services will need to be as efficient and effective and as possible in order to meet the needs of this oversized population without buckling under the financial strain that this generation will place on the federal government.

An Unprecedented Challenge

Between the years of 1946 and 1964, approximately 77 million babies were born in the United States.  The first members of this generation will turn 65 in 2011; on average, baby boomers are expected to live to age 83.  By 2050, the U.S. government estimates that non-Hispanic whites will comprise 64 percent of the over-65 population, a decrease from today’s 84 percent.
The baby boomer generation not only comprises the largest-ever American generation, it sports the highest of rate involvement with substance abuse. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Office of Applied Statistics reported that approximately 49 percent of baby boomers (at that time, 31-to-49-year-olds) had ever used illicit drugs. This was a drastic increase from the 11 percent reported by adults over the age of 50.

Studies support the link between substance abuse in early life and later substance abuse issues and problems. The DHHS estimates that the number of problem substance users aged 50 or older will increase from 2.5 million in 1999 to 5.0 million by 2020.

Coming-of-age baby boomers heralded a new era of illicit drug use in the United States – and aging members of this generation have maintained a higher rate of involvement with illicit drugs than the generation immediately preceding it. A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that was published in the May 16, 2008, edition of Scientific American found that illicit drug use among people ages 50-59 increased from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 4.4 percent in 2005.

Are Treatment/Rehab Systems Ready?

There is concern that current substance abuse treatment systems are not prepared to handle this possible onslaught of older adult addiction. In addition to the drastic increase in the number of older substance users, most diagnostic criteria and treatment models have been developed and validated for young adults and adults. 
Older adult substance users may display different symptoms than younger users, and may be more reticent to accept diagnosis and treatment. In addition, older users are more likely to be physically and psychologically fragile.  They may require more medically intensive care to withdraw safely from substances, and longer counseling to establish new behavioral patterns.

Preventing, treating, and managing addiction among ethnically diverse baby boomers will require cultural competence by providers and government agencies. The acceptability of alcohol abuse, in particular, in some cultures represents a barrier to successful diagnosis and treatment of substance abuse.  In addition, providers will be required to counter the stigma that accompanies substance abuse treatment in many cultures and communities.

As reporter Peter Brown wrote in his Scientific American article, when it comes to the challenges of treating addiction among the aging members of the baby boom generation, “medicine is only beginning to appreciate the consequences.”