Barriers to Identifying and Treating Substance Use Disorders in Old Adults

September is recovery month


September is National Recovery Month which aims to increase awareness of substance use disorders (SUDs). Too often, older adults are left out of conversations on substance use treatment, despite the growth in SUDs in this population as the baby boomers age. Factors in later life that contribute or exacerbate SUDs include stressors such as retirement, changes in health, shrinking social supports, isolation, and loss of a spouse. The lack of identification and treatment of SUDs in older adults has detrimental effects. Substance use worsens chronic conditions and memory issues and can lead to falls and other injuries. 

What are some of the reasons we fail to identify SUDs in older adults? 

  • Providers’ stereotypes of older adults
  • Use of assessment tools that are not appropriate for older adults 
  • Signs of SUDs can be mistaken for age-related changes and other chronic conditions 
  • Older adults that may be reluctant to admit substance use due to stigma


When substance use disorders are identified, there are challenges in linking older adults to treatment. Older adults are less likely to receive treatment than younger people, and few substance use programs are tailored to meet the needs of the aging population. 

What can we do to improve substance use treatment for older adults? 

  • Build awareness among health and social service providers
  • Train staff on best practices in working with older adults
  • Create programs specific to older adults. Studies have shown that older adults prefer peer treatment groups.
  • Address life transitions faced by older adults 
  • Work on rebuilding social supports
  • Time the program at a pace appropriate to older adults 
  • Adapt materials for older adults, for example, increasing the font  


Treatment benefits older adults. Once in treatment, older adults are more likely to complete treatment than other age groups. As the baby boomer population ages, more older adults are seeking treatment for substance use disorders. These programs must adjust to meet the needs of this population to offer the best treatment possible.


Read the entire September 2022 newsletter here