Learn / Too Late to Go to Rehab? Finding the Right Recovery Path as an Older Adult
Older adults face a unique set of challenges when it comes to finding treatment for addiction or mental health disorders. If you’re in this age group, you might feel self-conscious about seeking help at this point in your life, or be worried that you won’t be able to relate to your recovery peers if you do. And while it’s true that a smaller percentage of treatment centers offer special services for more senior clientele, the good news is that there are plenty of rehab programs specifically for older adults available to help people like you.
Addiction affects people of all ages and walks of life. No matter how old you are, you deserve to feel well. It’s never too late to make positive changes, take back control of your life, and be the best version of you that you can be.
Globally, the age group of people 65 years and older is growing faster than all others.1 The number of people aged 80 years or over is projected to triple to 426 million in 2050. Fortunately, there’s also an increased focus on what treatment looks like for seniors. Whether you’ve struggled with the negative effects of substance use at other points in your life and are ready to find support now, or if you’re just starting to notice concerns, there are specialized rehab programs that can help.
Getting older comes with certain stressors that can have real impacts on your mental health:
As we advance in age, we inevitably experience loss in various areas of our lives. For some people, the emotional stress of these losses leads them to cope by using substances. For others, it can trigger relapse if they’ve struggled with addiction before.
Social work researchers Justine McGovern and Stephanie Sarabia point out how life changes like this can contribute to substance abuse among older adults.2 “Aging is accompanied by multiple losses: loss of work with retirement; family roles as parenting decreases and family hierarchies are upended; loss of spouse, family, and friends due to death; physical capacity; and independence with the onset of physical and cognitive limitations…These compounded losses can contribute to increased rates of depression and anxiety, which can exacerbate underlying mental health issues.”
Whether or not you have a diagnosable disorder, you may benefit from professional guidance as you navigate the transitions that happen later in life.
People go through many different physical changes as they age, and these can all have significant effects on their quality of life. “Although often gradual, the aging process itself can produce changes that put older adults at risk for developing problem substance use,”3 say McGovern and Sarabia. “As the body ages, its capacity to process alcohol and other drugs becomes less efficient. Due to decreased lean muscle mass and a slower digestive system, substances remain in the body longer resulting in higher levels of intoxication.”
Interactions between prescription drugs, decreases in eyesight, and memory issues can all increase older people’s risk of substance misuse. Additionally, chronic illnesses can also increase pain and anxiety. Being able to physically access spaces—and participate in programs that are set up to accommodate physical disabilities and other needs—is especially crucial for those facing these challenges.
As we age, it’s also common to experience mental and emotional changes. Over time, elders may develop difficulties with problem-solving and spatial orientation. They might also notice feelings of depression related to having fewer social interactions, retiring from a meaningful career, or experiencing transitions in living situations. All of these can impact emotional well-being. This can also be exacerbated by sleep changes and insomnia, which can in turn increase substance use.4
Challenges related to physical, emotional, and psychological shifts, as well as potentially isolating life experiences, have very real impacts on older adults’ mental health. And this, of course, also affects patterns of substance use.
Substance use issues among seniors are widely underreported.5 That’s one reason why experts are calling for an increased focus on the needs of this age group in providing specialized, effective care.
Alcohol is the most common substance used in most countries worldwide. And according to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, between 2015 and 2017, 14.9% of adults aged 65 years and older reported high-risk levels of drinking.6
Changes in medication over time, combined with the cognitive impacts of aging, can lead to an increased risk of accidentally using dangerous levels of opioids. Older adults had the highest mortality rates related to opioid use7 between 2006 and 2013. Also in 2017, 3% of Americans aged 50–64 years and 1.5% of those 65 years old and older reported that they had misused opioid medications in the past year.
Substance use affects seniors in specific ways. Physically, effects might include an increased risk of falls, headaches, and seizures, as well as memory loss and disorientation. Substance use can also affect mental processes, leading to sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Seniors might also experience social consequences of substance misuse, like increased family conflict and professional, financial, and legal difficulties.
It can be hard for elders to seek treatment for these specific reasons, and it can be a challenge to identify the real problem. That’s because, in many cases, substance abuse looks similar to symptoms of medical disorders that are common at an older age.8 Not everyone is at risk based on all of these factors, and your needs are unique based on what kinds of support work best for you. Luckily, rehabs offer specialized program options to help you harness your strengths and make the most of your treatment experience.
Research shows that intensive treatments and self-help groups geared toward the general population can be effective for older adults9 with more severe substance use issues. But because of the unique concerns described above, some people find it helpful to enroll in treatment specifically geared towards a more mature clientele. And some therapies are found to be especially effective for people of this age group:
Many clients find family therapy to be a very meaningful part of their recovery journey. Because addiction affects all of our relationships, it can be highly beneficial to involve biological or chosen family members, partners, and other important loved ones in the healing process.
One rehab facility offering family-focused work is Hanley Center at Origins, located in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Quality care for the entire family must take each family’s specific challenges into account and offer a variety of age-specific solutions,” says the center’s clinical team. “These may include co-occurring mental health or medical challenges such as diabetes, cardiac issues, or cancers that are common with older adults.”
Acceptance and commitment therapy, also known as ACT, teaches clients to embrace their feelings instead of struggling against them. This may be especially useful for seniors struggling with substance abuse. ACT centers on mindfulness exercises, which help people to become more aware of their cravings, thought patterns, and feelings without judging themselves. This also encourages psychological flexibility. Committed action helps clients achieve their long-term goals by focusing on the values that will help them get better. ACT can also decrease the negative effects of chronic pain on mental health,10 says Julie Weatherell, a professor of Experimental Psychopathology at San Diego State University.
ACT’s focus on value-based living can be specifically beneficial for seniors.11 “Losing contact with one’s life values may occur following important significant life events such as retirement or new functional impairments that arise from a chronic illness,” say clinical psychologists Andrew Petkus, M.A. and Julie Wetherell, Ph.D. “[In ACT,] we address values earlier and to a greater extent than is usually done with younger people. We explicitly incorporate religion into discussions about values because this is a very important domain for many older people. We also talk about end-of-life issues in the context of values-driven behavior.”
Kolonial House in Sanur, Bali, Indonesia supports older adults and offers ACT as one of their treatment approaches.
Trauma-informed care can be helpful in supporting elders who have experienced loss or other painful events during their lifetime and continue to feel the effects in their daily lives. In rehab, this also means taking a curious approach to understanding how addiction is related to a person’s emotional triggers and coping skills.
“Trauma-informed treatment really prepares individuals to live in recovery, which is good self-care. They also develop skills that will help them navigate in the world as they begin the process of healing from trauma, which might involve in-depth therapy and treatment to address their experiences.”– Dr. Monika Kolodziej, Program Director of McLean Fernside
Nōmina Wellness in Courtenay, British Columbia provides eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and other treatments to help their senior clients manage symptoms while they develop adaptive skills to navigate traumas.
With so many options available, it’s important to keep in mind that deciding what aspects of care are important for you will be most helpful in choosing the right facility.
Residential care can be life-changing, but it’s only the first step in the journey of recovery. You may have questions about what life will look like after inpatient treatment and how to set yourself up for success in the weeks and months after returning home. Most luxury rehab centers offer aftercare programs to make sure that you’re supported in maintaining the positive changes you made. A good-quality continuing care program will also make sure you have adequate resources in place, as post-treatment challenges can and do arise. This can look like stepping down to an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or partial hospitalization program (PHP), or attending support groups with peers in recovery.
Because physical distance can create a barrier to accessing in-person therapy and group programs, some rehab centers also offer online aftercare services. Web-based programs can be especially useful for people with mobility concerns. They can also help you connect with and learn from people who aren’t necessarily located near you, but nonetheless offer valuable life perspectives. These remote programs are set up to be confidential, just like in-person therapy. And, if available, continuing to work with the same therapist after leaving rehab can create a smoother transition to the life you want to live.
Older adults may face some unique hurdles in the search for addiction and mental health treatment, but that doesn’t mean effective care isn’t available to you. You can receive support that’s in line with your wants, needs, and life experiences, several rehabs offer programs designed to provide exactly that.
To learn more about these programs, see our curated list of luxury rehabs for older adults.
Yes, rehab can be highly beneficial for older adults facing substance abuse or mental health concerns. Specialized rehab programs for older adults offer age-appropriate treatment, addressing their unique stressors and needs. These include navigating physical changes, such as managing prescription medication, alongside emotional changes, like navigating loss.
Rehab programs for older adults include inpatient or outpatient options, specialized programs with a focus on family involvement, trauma-informed care, tailored therapies, medical supervision, and more. An integrated program addresses the physical, mental, and social aspects of recovery.
Rehab for older adults provides a supportive and structured environment, specialized care for age-related concerns, medication management, social connection, and opportunities for building a sober support network.
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