Understanding Senior Addiction Treatment

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Older adults who are seeking treatment for substance use disorders often have a set of unique concerns, goals, and needs that are different from, for example, what an adolescent might need. As such, it is important that older adults receive care that addresses their life stage and developmental needs.

Many treatment programs provide the specialized care that can enable older adults to succeed in substance abuse treatment. A high-quality substance abuse program will begin by working with the individual to develop a specially tailored treatment plan that addresses his or her unique needs. In the course of treatment, older adults may work with a number of different treatment professionals, including the following:

  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists
  • Therapists
  • Nurses
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Counselors
  • Addictions counselors

Because of their unique needs, older adults often benefit from medical and other interventions that are not as common in treatment programs for younger adults or adolescents. The following are some of the most common elements in substance abuse treatment programs for older adults:

Detoxification: When an individual enters treatment with substances of abuse still in his or her system, the first step in the treatment process is detoxification, or detox. During detox, an individual completes the withdrawal process under the supervision of a trained medical team who ensures that the process is as safe and comfortable as possible. Detox typically lasts for a few days and afterwards, individuals typically transition directly into residential, inpatient, or other treatment programs.

Medication management: Often times, individuals in treatment benefit from the addition of medications into their care plans. Many substance abuse treatment programs, therefore, provide medication management services to help these individuals receive medications that can allow them to manage the symptoms of co-occurring mental health and medical disorders and maximize their ability to focus on treatment.

Individual therapy: One of the cornerstones of virtually every treatment program, individual therapy is an opportunity for older adults in treatment to meet one-on-one with a highly trained and experienced therapist to process issues that have arisen during the course of treatment. These therapy sessions provide support and give older adults a space to discuss issues that they may not feel comfortable discussing during groups.

Group therapy: Group therapy is often the backbone of a substance abuse treatment program for older adults. Groups allow individuals to learn from each other’s experiences, share their wisdom, support each other, and build skills for long-term recovery.  Groups are led by experienced clinicians to ensure that the groups have a strong sense of safety and that each individual is able to benefit from the group. Groups cover a wide range of topics and formats and are tailored to focus on the needs of the individuals in any particular group.

Experiential therapies: Experiential therapy gives individuals a chance to use their bodies and minds in their recovery efforts. Experiential therapies are often focused around activities such as art or recreation. Different treatment centers offer their own variety of experiential therapies.

Family therapy: Because substance abuse and co-occurring mental illness have an effect, not just on individuals, but also on the entire family systems, many programs provide family therapy and other family oriented interventions for older adults who are in treatment. These family therapy sessions are led by experienced clinicians and are focused on helping family members understand the cycle of abuse as it pertains to their family, and build their ability to support each other by addressing issues that may prevent them from experiencing relational health. In addition, many programs provide education to help families understand the process and nature of addiction and what they can do to support their loved one.

Together, these interventions allow older adults with substance use disorders to get the help they need to build a foundation for a healthier life.  However, different individuals often need different levels of care based on their substance abuse history, co-occurring mental health disorders, and other conditions.  The most common levels of care are described below:

Inpatient or residential: Inpatient and residential care are the most intensive levels of care that the majority of treatment centers provide. During inpatient or residential treatment, individuals live at the treatment center and have access to treatment center staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For individuals who are seeking treatment for substance use disorders, inpatient or residential treatment often begins with a few days in detox to give the person’s body a chance to rid itself of substances of abuse.

Partial hospitalization programming (PHP): PHP is the next step down from inpatient or residential care. A less intensive form of treatment, PHP allows individuals to begin to reenter their everyday lives while also benefiting from the support of a dedicated treatment team. At this level of care, a patient may or may not live onsite at the treatment center while receiving care.

Intensive outpatient programming (IOP): IOP care is often the last step for individuals before they complete treatment and are discharged into their communities. IOP care typically occurs a few days per week for three to four hours a day, and includes many of the same interventions described above, including group       and individual therapy.

If you or a loved one might benefit from the types of care described here, do not hesitate to seek out a treatment program that is a good fit for you or your loved one. It is never too late to begin the journey to lifelong sobriety.