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When you reach your golden years, it can feel as if some of life’s greatest risks and deepest challenges are behind you. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, while drug and alcohol addiction are usually associated with the young, substance dependence and misuse are also a formidable threat to senior populations.
Worse, older patient populations may be at an increased risk of inadequate care for their addiction if they receive treatment at all. And barriers to treatment seem only to have increased during the COVID era, as seniors find themselves sheltering at home to avoid potential exposure to the virus.
Given the profound need for effective addiction treatment for seniors, strategies for care that recognize and accommodate the unique vulnerabilities and requirements of older patient populations must be found.
Seniors, Addiction, and the Impact of COVID
When we think of substance abuse, we often think of the heady days of reckless youth, when indulgence quickly spirals into addiction. The reality, however, is that drug and alcohol use disorders are by no means the exclusive provenance of the young.
Aging populations are also highly vulnerable to addiction. This may be the result of behavior patterns that emerged in youth and have become entrenched in ensuring decades. Or the disorder may evolve as a result of challenges associated with aging, such as the use of alcohol or opioids to manage the pain and anxiety of an age-related illness or injury.
Life-course transitions, such as the death of a spouse or the loss of independence, can also result in emotional and psychological traumas that can trigger addiction. This is especially problematic in the COVID era, where new and worsening addictions have become ubiquitous across all age cohorts.
The impact of the pandemic on seniors, both physically and emotionally, has been especially severe, however. Due to their inherent vulnerability to the virus, seniors are forced to maintain their self-isolation far more rigorously, and for far longer, than younger populations.
And the loneliness and exclusion that result, particularly the separation from one’s children and grandchildren, have taken a devastating psychological toll on seniors. Not a few of them have turned to drugs and alcohol to help them cope.
The risk of addiction can be particularly high for seniors who have or who may have developed mental illness, such as clinical depression or anxiety disorders. Studies show, for example, that mental illness and substance use disorders (SUD) often go hand-in-hand, creating dangerous co-morbidities that can be especially difficult to diagnose and treat.
The Unique Challenges of Treating Addiction in Seniors
It’s not only that seniors face unique risks and vulnerabilities when it comes to addiction in the COVID and post-COVID era, but it’s also that treating SUD in this patient population poses specific challenges that younger patient groups may not face.
For example, seniors who are retired or on Medicare may lack sufficient coverage for addiction treatment, especially when inpatient rehab is needed. Financial concerns can deter those suffering from addiction from getting the help they may urgently need for this life-threatening disease.
For this reason, healthcare providers and advocates working with the elderly must recognize not only the significant risks that seniors face when it comes to addiction but also the obstacles that may preclude them from getting treatment.
Indeed, if there are any benefits to be derived from the aftermath of the pandemic, it may well be that the COVID outbreak has uncovered the manifold health disparities that exist in underserved populations like certain ethnicities or the elderly. In the face of the growing need for treatment options for seniors facing addiction amid the pandemic, the revelation of the lack of access to such care also reveals an important opportunity for improving care for all seniors, not only those who have developed SUD in the wake of the pandemic,
Remote and In-Home Care
At the peak of the pandemic, healthcare providers and government leaders alike turned to the use of telehealth to help protect patients and mitigate pressures on the health system. Remote patient monitoring and treatment devices and secure video consultations have enabled safe, consistent, and high-quality healthcare without requiring patients to leave home and risk exposure to the virus.
But the benefits of telehealth for the general population can also be parlayed into effective treatment strategies for seniors facing addiction. Not only do telehealth services offer an array of effective options for managing physical health, but patients can also readily access a range of mental health services, connecting with licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, and addiction specialists with the mere touch of a button.
The opportunity to access remote care can be a powerful incentive for the elderly seeking help for their substance dependency. These technologies not only make it possible for seniors to receive the treatment they need without risking exposure to the virus, but they can also help to incentivize those who may resist getting help due to the fear of stigmatization. The privacy of in-home treatment may well break down one of the most significant barriers to treatment.
But home-based care doesn’t have to stop at the edges of a computer or smartphone screen. In fact, in the post-COVID era, at-home healthcare is gaining increasing prominence. Home healthcare providers can perform many of the same services that are offered in a clinic, from taking blood and urine samples to administering medication.
For seniors whose addiction treatment plan includes prescribed pharmaceuticals, for instance, an in-home healthcare provider can closely monitor patients, their responses to treatment, and their compliance with the treatment regime–All this, once again, without putting the patient’s health and privacy at risk.
Addiction is a cruel and dangerous disease, and the challenges of treatment can be especially formidable among senior populations. The outbreak of COVID-19 has only amplified those risks. However, in our post-COVID world, new treatment opportunities are emerging every day. Among the most significant of these include the profound benefit of telehealth and in-home care. Nevertheless, if true health equity is to be achieved for seniors facing addiction, then informed advocacy and urgent action must prevail.