Addiction in Older Adults and the Baby Boomer Generation
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Addiction and the Baby Boomer Generation

In drug and alcohol rehab centers across the country, treatment professionals are seeing an increasing number of older adults enter substance abuse treatment. Drug and alcohol addiction among those in their 50s and 60s is on the rise, and with baby boomers comprising nearly one-quarter of the United States population, it is likely this trend will continue upward. Treating substance abuse in the baby boomer age group comes with its own unique challenges, both for the addict and treatment staff. By understanding the reasons why baby boomers turn to drugs and alcohol, drug treatment programs can tailor their programming to effectively meet the needs of this age group.

Baby Boomers and Addiction: Statistics


According to statistics provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2012, substance use among those aged 50 to 64 has significantly increased over the past decade. Among those aged 50 to 54, drug use rates have doubled from 3.4% in 2002 to 7.2% in 2012. Additionally, the use of drugs and alcohol among those aged 55 to 59 has more than tripled from 1.9 percent to 6.6 percent in the same time period. For many addicts in their baby boomer years, alcohol is the most common drug that is abused along with cocaine.

The SAMHSA report also reports the following regarding substance abuse among baby boomers:

  • About half of all baby boomers have experimented with illicit drugs.
  • 2 percent of new addictions in the last five years in this age group involved cocaine abuse.
  • Nearly three-quarters of all baby boomers in treatment have addictions that had started before the age of 25.

Why the Increase in Treatment Admissions for Baby Boomers?

There are several reasons that can explain the increase in drug treatment admissions for those who are baby boomers. First, the boomer generation is facing the stresses and pressures that accompany growing older. Many older people experience a decline in health which often require regular doctor visits and may involve the administration of prescription drugs. Prescription drug abuse among baby boomers has been growing steadily over the past few years and has become the third most abused drug group among baby boomers.

Women in this age group experience the effects of menopause, which causes drastic hormonal and emotional changes. Women who are going through menopause often experience depression, insomnia and other issues where they may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with these changes. Another factor can be contributing to the increase in drug use among baby boomers can be tied familial pressures. An increasing number of baby boomers are caring for their parents as well as becoming more active in the child rearing of their own children’s offspring. With the additional pressures of a shaky economy combined with these factors, many in this generation may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with these stresses on their own.

The Challenges of Treating Baby Boomers

Injection into hand of senior male

In comparison to other age groups, the baby boomer population presents a unique set of challenges to addiction professionals in regards to treatment. Among the biggest challenges is the fact that common signs of drug abuse such as anxiety, memory loss, and disorientation are also common in people when they age, therefore proper diagnosis can be problematic. Additionally, it may be difficult to see any signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol use among baby boomers in regards to their day-to-day functioning. When children move out of the house and as baby boomers reach retirement age, they can become less visible and engaged in their community which makes it easier to hide a drug or alcohol problem.

There are also challenges regarding the proper diagnosis of substance abuse among those in the baby boomer generation. Many of the tools used to assess substance abuse, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), do not take into consideration the life experiences of older adults. Additionally, treatment staff will usually encounter resistance from older patients who feel they don’t have a drug or alcohol problem. For these patients, the use of drugs and alcohol may be seen as a form of reward for the years of sacrifice and hard work they put into their marriages, families, and careers.

Most importantly, one of the biggest challenges facing drug rehabilitation centers in the treatment of baby boomers is having enough room to treat patients in this age group. It is estimated that baby boomers will become the largest demographic in the United States within the next few years. Drug treatment centers must be able to prepare for the potential increase of clients by not only having adequate room but also hiring staff that is specially trained to need the needs of older addicts.

Finding the Best Drug Treatment for Baby Boomers

Despite the challenges faced by older adults and drug treatment staff, recovery from the devastating effects of addiction is possible. When finding a drug treatment center that will effectively serve the needs of baby boomers, there are specific points that need to be considered. For example, the best baby boomer drug treatment facilities offer medical detoxification options that will take into account their age and health considerations so that the detox process is safe. Along with counseling the therapy, addiction treatment for older adults should incorporate programming that has an age-specific focus on topics such as grief and loss, developing spirituality, nutritional needs, pain management and medication management.

Since older adults may not have the abundant support of family and friends, drug treatment centers should offer aftercare options that focus on peer support. These treatment programs also need to provide baby boomers and individualized treatment plan that will focus on their specific recovery needs. Drug treatment centers should also be able to offer both inpatient and outpatient programming that will allow clients to take breaks if necessary or be able to go home during the evening hours. Additionally, drug treatment centers that specialize in care for the baby boomer population should be able to accept most forms of public and private insurance or be able to offer a sliding fee scale or other payment options.

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