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New study calls for better awareness of drug problems in older people

The issue of drug misuse in older people is being systematically ignored according to a report published by the Big Lottery Fund today. The scoping study indicates that while the number of older people with drug problems in the UK is on the rise they fail to get the same attention as young people. 

The report produced by the Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team at the University of Bedfordshire, shows that while most indicators of drug use are decreasing in young people, both illicit drug use* and medication addiction is a growing problem for older people across the UK. This is likely to be largely due to the ageing of the ‘baby-boomer’ generation – those born during the period of increased birth-rates following World War II, who were exposed to relatively high levels and liberal attitudes to drug use in their formative years.

The report also indicated that while older people respond well to treatment for drug problems and they are half as likely to drop out of treatment as younger people, they tend to be ignored by treatment services which are geared towards younger people with some not even accepting referrals for older people.

Sarah Wadd, Programme Director Substance Misuse and Ageing Research, explained: “Older people, like younger people, use drugs for a variety of reasons including enjoyment or to cope with difficult problems, situations or feelings.  Some become addicted to medicines that were prescribed to them by a doctor.   They may develop a drug problem for the first time in later life or have a lifelong history of drug problems. 

“Sadly, older people with drug problems in the UK fail to get the same attention as young people.  They are excluded from national drug prevalence studies and are rarely mentioned in drug strategies. Ageist attitudes and prejudicial assumptions can prevent health and social care workers identifying drug problems in older people and referring them for specialist treatment. 

“To help change the situation we must take action now. This should include improving data collection and knowledge about what works in the identification, treatment and prevention of drug problems in older people, tackling ageist attitudes and increasing knowledge and skills in health and social care professionals and making sure that drug treatment services are accessible and meet the needs of older people.                                       

Peter Ainsworth, Chair of the Big Lottery Fund added: “Within 70 years, one in three people in the UK will be aged 60 and over.  Given these population projections, taking action on drug use and misuse in older people can be regarded as a sound investment that will have long term value for subsequent generations.

“Independent and statutory funders have an opportunity to make a real difference by finding innovative approaches, that will support joined-up work between health and social services, voluntary groups, older people and the  local communities they live in.”

The Big Lottery Fund commissioned the study to provide:

  • An overview of the scale, nature and consequences of drug misuse in older people across the UK.
  • An understanding of the extent to which substance misuse strategies in the four UK countries address the issue.
  • Guidance on what action is most needed and where investment from independent and statutory funders might be most useful.

The findings of the study are based on analysis of existing data, published literature as well as review of relevant policies.

Six priorities for funders have been identified in this study:

  • Increasing knowledge about what works in the identification, treatment and prevention of drug problems in older people and improving the collection and reporting of data.
  • Increasing professionals’ competencies and skills in identifying and working with older people with drug problems.
  • Developing and testing approaches to increasing older people’s ability to cope with stress and adversity (resilience) which can contribute to some people starting, returning to or escalating drug use in later life.
  • Scaling-up and rolling out an intervention which has been shown to be effective in identifying and treating medication addiction.
  • Broadening the remit of existing specialist alcohol services for older people to include treatment for drug problems and commissioning new integrated alcohol and drug treatment services for older people.
  • Providing advocacy for older people with drug problems.

For full report go: –




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