A Hidden Epidemic: Older Adults and Substance Abuse

February 10, 2015

Maureen Fitzgerald
Communications Coordinator, ATTC Network
Editor, NIATx
North Carolina filmmaker Linda Warden left a career in information technology to make movies, focusing on topics that help children and families. Having lost a child to addiction, she is especially interested in increasing awareness of substance use disorders and their impact on families and communities.

 “Addiction affects people of all ages,” she comments. “To my knowledge, nothing has really been done on older adults and addiction in the mass media.”
That explains, in part, her interest in producing a documentary on older adults and substance use disorder, A Hidden Epidemic. “Although addiction is a part of this program, the focus is on prevention and recovery,” says Ms. Warden.

Worry about substance use and abuse among older adults is growing, particularly as more and more Baby Boomers reach retirement age. (10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day for approximately the next 15 years.) 

“I’ve found that alcohol is the number one problem for older adults, with prescription drugs following a close second,” says Ms. Warden. She reviewed nearly 80 research studies and interviewed experts while producing the film. One of them, Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke’s University Institute for Brain Sciences, is interviewed in the film. “Many families cannot imagine their older members having a problem with a substance,” he says.

Dr. Esra Alagoz agrees. She’s a researcher at the UW-Madison’s Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies, which also houses NIATx. She’s been exploring the issue of older adults and addiction as part of her work for the Center’s Active Aging Research Center project. This project is looking at ways that technology can help older people “age in place,” or remain in their own home or the residence of their choice—rather than a nursing home—for as long as possible. Many older people end up in nursing homes dues to addiction-related issues.

“Family members and caregivers play an important role in uncovering and addressing older adults’ substance abuse,” says Dr. Alagoz. One surprising discovery for Dr. Alagoz was that adult children are not aware of their aging parents’ substance use issues, and usually don’t want to interfere. “Adult children don’t want to admit or acknowledge their parents’ substance abuse,” she says. This hands-off attitude is intensified by doctors' tendency to neglect to ask older patients about drinking. “Doctors assume that their older patients won’t change after a certain age,” adds Dr. Alagoz.

A Hidden Epidemic explores the issue of how family members and medical professional deal with older adults’ substance use, and also shares research evidence showing that older adults do benefit from treatment. “Studies have shown that older people respond better to treatment than young people, as they are more likely to attend treatment sessions and less likely to relapse,” says Dr. Alagoz.

The documentary will be broadcast on the North Carolina PBS station, UNC-MX, on February 15 and February 18. It will be available to PBS stations in other states and the U.S. Virgin Islands at no charge through the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) beginning Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2015. To request a broadcast in your area, contact your local PBS station.

“My hope is that the movie will get this information out to as many people as possible – medical professionals, therapists, clergy, and families—so they can help people who are struggling with substance use,” says Linda Warden.

For more information about A Hidden Epidemic, visit http://www.lcwproductions.com/ahiddenepidemic.html or contact Linda Warden at LCWarden@Yahoo.com. 

The ATTC Network offers an online course on substance abuse in older adults: "Substance Abuse in Older Adults: Screening and Treatment Intervention Strategies." For more information, visit HealtheKnowledge.org, the ATTC online learning portal.

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