Elderly alcohol and substance abuse is one of the fastest growing, but rarely talked about health problems in this country. NY1’s health and medicine reporter Erin Billups took a look at one program that hopes to create a standard of care and rehabilitation for seniors struggling with addiction.
The good news, more people are living longer. The bad news, the number of seniors abusing alcohol and drugs is on the rise.
"In New York City right now 17 percent of the elderly people age 65 and older have a substance abuse problem. That’s about 150,000 to 170,000 elderly adults," says Steven Wollman, who heads up Jewish Home Life Care's new geriatrics substance abuse recovery program.
The program in Fordham focuses on seniors struggling with prescription drug addiction or alcoholism.
"The baby boomers are all starting to retire and turning 65. That’s part of the population that probably is more familiar with drug use than any other population that I can possibly think of," says Wollman.
So far they've seen 26 clients including 74-year-old George Gancarz.
"My main drug of choice is beer," says Gancarz.
Gancarz was referred to the program from the V.A., where he was being treated for a fall.
"It’s about time I learned my lesson. If I don’t stop now I never will. And that can result having very, very serious problems as far as my health," says Gancarz.
He says he drinks up to four cans of beer a day, a habit he's had since he was a young man.
"As I get older my body can’t take it like a young man can take it," says Gancarz.
Aging can lower the body's tolerance for alcohol and drugs. Experts say for seniors, consuming more than three drinks a day or seven a week is risky business. Wollman says elderly substance abuse is a problem that society has failed to sufficiently confront.
"There has been no funding, there are no studies. There are very few treatment options," says Wollman.
He says many are uncomfortable dealing with the effects of aging, and as a result some seniors self-medicate and end up in the emergency room.
"We're hoping what we do here will cut down on the emergency room visits," says Wollman.
Creating a standard of care before the problem gets out of hand.