Improved support needed for older people

Improved support is needed for older people with drug and alcohol issues, says a new report from DrugScope. While the focus of policy and media attention remains young people, there is a significant and growing problem with older people’s use of substances, says the charity.

Alcohol-related hospital admissions for men and women over 65 rose by 136 and 132 per cent respectively in the eight years to 2010, says It’s about time: tackling substance misuse in older people, while alcohol-related death rates among over-75s are now at their highest recorded level.

While the aging population being treated for heroin problems has become, according to Public Health England (PHE), one of the ‘key features of drug treatment in England’, and many of the trends highlighted in the report ‘partly reflect the health consequences of long-term drug or alcohol use’, there are also a significant number of ‘late starters’ using substances to self-medicate the physical and mental issues associated with growing old, it stresses. The physiological changes associated with getting older also mean that this population group can be at increased risk of adverse effects from substance misuse, ‘even at relatively modest levels’.

While there is some effective service provision for older people, more awareness is needed as a first step to providing age-appropriate specialist services as well as better support in primary and social care settings, says the report. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) estimates that the number of older people needing treatment for substance misuse will have more than doubled from 2001’s figure by 2020.

Among the report’s recommendations are ‘age-appropriate, non-time-limited treatment’ for people who are drug or alcohol-dependent, as well as brief interventions for people drinking at risk and support for problems with prescription or over-the-counter medications. Commissioners also need to recognise the importance of services for older people and ensure continued funding, while services themselves should make sure their services are accessible and relevant to this client group.

‘Drugs and alcohol issues may affect older people differently, but that does not make them less real or important,’ said DrugScope chief executive Marcus Roberts. ‘They may be a symptom of other problems, such as loneliness and isolation, caring for a partner, bereavement or the struggle to make ends meet. The facts and figures in the report speak for themselves and with the numbers of older people as a percentage of the population continuing to rise, this is not an issue that we can ignore.’

Barriers to accessing support need to be addressed, he urged, ranging from embarrassment at having to ask for help to a belief among professionals that ‘older people can’t change’. ‘It’s time to bring this largely “invisible” issue into the light and to improve the support for older people with drug and alcohol issues.’

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