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Experts Highlight A Growing Problem Of Substance Abuse Among Older Vermonters

Peter Hirschfeld
Experts such as Dr. Stephen Bartels, a Dartmouth Medical School professor and national expert in geriatric psychiatry, say substance abuse in the elderly population is a significant problem that's getting scant attention.

In 2014, Gov. Peter Shumlin dedicated his State of the State address to the issue of opiate addiction. Since then, Vermont’s problems with substance abuse have been thrust into the state and even national spotlight. But experts say one aspect of the public-health crisis remains hidden in the shadows.

Vermont is one of the grayest states in the nation, and people age 65 and older now make up 17 percent of the total population. Barbara Cimaglio, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, says there’s one area where those seniors are troublingly under-represented.

“For the last few years, only about 1 percent of the people that received treatment for alcohol and drug abuse issues were over 65,” Cimaglio says.

The scarcity of numbers in treatment centers isn’t because they don’t need the help. 

“We know that there’s just as much substance abuse among older adults as there is younger adults,” says Charles Gurney, the substance-abuse and aging coordinator at the Vermont Department of Aging and Independent Living. “There’s a lot of research that points to that.”

Gurney’s job is to improve substance-abuse treatment and prevention services for people 65 and older. But he says his chief problem now is general ignorance of the fact that older Vermonters struggle with drug and alcohol problems in the first place.

That’s beginning to change. The Vermont Association of Mental and Addiction Recovery held its 77th annual meeting this week at the Capital Plaza in Montpelier. The title was “Elder Substance Abuse and Misuse.” The idea for the theme was Gurney’s, and he says he hopes it will open the eyes of the nearly 200 mental-health and substance-abuse experts who turned out for the day-long event.

“Because actually one of the biggest problems in terms of substance misuse and abuse among older adults is it’s been hidden, under-identified, and under-recognized,” Gurney says.

"One of the biggest problems in terms of substance misuse and abuse among older adults is it's been hidden, under-identified, and under-recognized." - Charles Gurney, Vermont Department of Aging and Independent Living

Dr. Stephen Bartels, professor at Dartmouth Medical School and a national expert in geriatric psychiatry, addressed the issue at the annual meeting on Wednesday. Not only are older people as likely to abuse or misuse drugs and alcohol, their aging bodies make them more susceptible to adverse health events as a result. According to Bartels, the onset of chronic health conditions in older people, and the drugs used to treat them, can turn even small amounts of alcohol into a serious threat.

“About 25 percent of emergency department admissions, it’s been thought, for older adults, may be related to some sort of alcohol-medication interaction,” Bartels says. “That’s really astonishing if you think about it."

Gurney says the stigma attached to substance abuse is even more pronounced for the older generation, so it’s harder to convince them to seek treatment. But he says the state also lacks the recovery programs needed to help them when they do finally ask for help.

“Actually there’s only one treatment provider in all of Vermont so far that’s at this point developing an age-specific treatment program for elders,” Gurney says.

Gurney says increasing treatment capacity will require additional resources. He says that as awareness grows, and more seniors begin to seek help, Vermont will have to make sure they have a place to find it.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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