- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — They go around the room at the Hanley Center telling of their struggles with alcohol and drugs. They recall low points and lapses, brushes with death and pain inflicted on families. And silently, through the simple fact that each is in their 60s or beyond, they share one more secret: Addiction knows no age.

“I retired, I started drinking more,” one man said. “I lost my father, my mother, my dog, and it gave me a good excuse,” said another.

A remarkable shift in the number of older adults reporting substance-abuse problems is making this scene more commonplace. Between 1992 and 2008, treatment admissions for those 50 and older more than doubled in the U.S. That number will continue to grow, experts say, as the massive baby boom generation ages.

“There is a level of societal denial around the issue,” said Peter Provet, the head of Odyssey House in New York, another center offering specialized substance-abuse treatment programs for seniors. “No one wants to look at their grandparent, no one wants to think about their grandparent or their elderly parent, and see that person as an addict.”

All told, 231,200 people age 50 and over sought treatment for substance abuse in 2008, up from 102,700 in 1992, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Older adults accounted for about one of every eight seeking help for substance abuse in 2008, meaning their share of treatment admissions has doubled over the 16-year period as other age groups’ proportions have shrunk slightly.

The growth outpaces overall population gains among older demographics.

Between 2000 and 2008, substance-abuse treatment admissions among those 50 and older increased by 70 percent while the overall 50-plus population grew by 21 percent. Experts say that’s because boomers have historically high rates of substance abuse, often developed three or four decades ago, that comes to a head later in life.

“The baby boom population has some experience with substance misuse and is more comfortable with these substances,” said Dr. Westley Clark, director of SAMHSA’s center on substance-abuse treatment.

Treatment professionals believe the actual number of older people with substance-abuse problems is many times larger than the amount seeking help.

While the number of older people with substance-abuse problems is burgeoning, relatively few facilities offer treatment programs specifically for their age group. Most pool people of all ages together; many divide by gender. Those that do offer age-specific programs say it helps participants relate to one another and keeps them focused on themselves, rather than mentoring younger addicts.

Mr. Provet said some have questioned whether it’s worthwhile to target seniors, who generally have fewer years left to benefit from treatment than younger people. He dismisses that reasoning, comparing it to arguing that cancer patients should be turned away from chemotherapy or radiation treatments simply because they are 65.

Besides, older participants at Odyssey House have the highest completion rate - 85 percent during the last fiscal year.

“It’s almost as if they say, ‘This now is my last shot. Let me see if I can get my life right finally,’ ” he said.

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