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Senior populations change the dynamic

February 27, 2015
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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My great aunt passed away recently at the age of 107. As much as I’d like to think her secret to a long life—chocolate truffles and romance novels—is what helped her live to be a supercentenarian, I’m pretty sure medical advances in the last century helped to make a difference too.

Over the next 25 years, the senior population is going to double, and the behavioral health community must step up to serve their unique needs. Even if your facility doesn’t treat older adults right now, it’s an opportunity you’ll want to consider, not only because of the sheer number of potential patients but also because they really need care.

Senior issues

Substance abuse—particularly alcohol—is less likely to be recognized in seniors, and therefore, less likely to be treated, according to John Dyben, director of older adult treatment services for Hanley Center at Origins, one of very few treatment programs in the United States for the senior population. Dyben also told me at his recent Addiction Professional Academy presentation that prescription drug abuse among seniors is quickly catching up to alcohol to claim the number one spot.

Treating older adults calls for a specialized clinical approach. For example, those over age 65 tend to have slower metabolism, and detox could take much longer for them.

And if you think you’re seeing a bundle of co-occurring conditions now, just wait another decade or so. According to the National Council on Aging, nearly 92 percent of older adults have at least one chronic condition, and 77 percent have at least two. It will be almost a given that your older patients will arrive with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and possibly even cancer that’s in remission, in addition to the substance use. Think about the integration and staff expertise you’ll need to just to manage the physical health aspects during treatment.

The young and the old

It’s daunting to think about the dynamics of younger counselors treating older patients. The two must be partners in treatment but certainly will struggle to develop rapport. Even after building a relationship over time, it can be difficult for a counselor who was born in the Reagan era to click with a patient who remembers the Kennedy assassination.

Specialized training will be required for everyone on staff to improve their understanding of the challenges that older adults face, such as hearing loss or vision changes. Not all staff members will embrace the specialty. It takes a certain attitude to connect with someone who is older than you and create mutual trust.

But the rewards are plenty. Those who provide care can learn so much from seniors who have longer, richer life experiences. They might be surprised by how much they enjoy working with seniors and how entertaining they find the conversations about life and past events. Because older patients might need more one-on-one care, the additional time presents a chance to offer lighter, more relaxed conversation with someone who may be lonely. That connection has priceless rewards.

I have no doubt that serving the senior population in the coming years will become not only an excellent business opportunity but also a satisfying personal experience.


Julie Miller

Editor in Chief

Julie Miller


Julie Miller has more than 14 years of experience observing, analyzing and reporting on various...

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