Health and social services are facing a new challenge, as many illicit
drug users get older and face chronic health problems and a reduced
quality of life. Older people who continue to use problematic or illegal
drugs are emerging as an important, but relatively under-researched,
international population” says lead author Brenda Roe, Professor of
Health Research at Edge Hill University, UK.
“They are a vulnerable group, as their continued drug use, addiction and
life experiences result in impaired health, chronic conditions,
particular health needs and poorer quality of life. Despite this,
services for older drug addicts are not widely available or accessed in
Figures from the USA suggest that the number of people over 50 seeking
help for drug or alcohol problems will have risen from 1.7 million in
2000 to 4.4 million by 2020. And the European Monitoring Centre for
Drugs and Drug Addiction estimates that the number of people aged 65 and
over requiring treatment in Europe will double over the same period.
The nine men and two women who took part in the study had an average age
of 57. All were currently single and their homes ranged from a caravan,
hostel or care home to social housing.
Key findings from the study — by the Evidence-based Practice Research
Centre at Edge Hill University and the Centre for Public Health at
Liverpool John Moores University — included:
Most started taking drugs as adolescents or young adults, often
citing recreational use, experimenting or being part of the hippy era.
Child abuse and the death of a parent were also mentioned.
Some started taking drugs late in life due to stressful life
events like divorce or death. Meeting a drug using partner was another
trigger. One man started taking drugs later in life to shock his drug
taking partner into stopping and ended up developing a drug habit himself.
First drug use varied from magic mushrooms, LSD, amphetamines and
cannabis to heroin and methadone.
Alcohol and smoking often featured alongside drug use.
Some increased their drug use over time, while others had periods
when they tried to reduce or even abstain from drugs.
All but two of the participants were taking methadone, either as
maintenance or as part of a reduction strategy in order to give up drugs.
A number of the participants said they were trying to use drugs
responsibly and it was felt that their age and the influence of drug
treatment services were factors in this. They also appeared more aware
of the need to maintain their personal safety, based on previous
Most recognized that their drug use was having detrimental and
cumulative effects on their health, as they had developed a range of
chronic and life-threatening conditions that required hospitalization
and ongoing treatment.
Physical health conditions included: circulatory problems such as
deep vein thrombosis, injection site ulcers, stroke, respiratory
problems, pneumonia, diabetes, hepatitis and liver cirrhosis.
Malnutrition, weight loss and obesity also featured, as did accidental
injuries due to falls and drug overdoses.
Common mental health problems included memory loss, paranoia and
changed mood states, with anxiety or anger also featuring.
All wished they hadn’t started taking drugs and would advise
young people not to. A few were keen to give up, but others felt it was
too hard. One man described his drug use as “disgusting and squalid”
while another said that the older he got the worse his drug use got and
that it was a “crazy” situation.
All were single or divorced and drug use was a common factor in
relationship breakdowns. Most lived alone, with three relying on careers
who were also drug users. Pets were often important for some, providing
companionship as well as a sense of responsibility and structure to
Drug use was often associated with chaotic lifestyles and
relationships and some reported periods of imprisonment.
Participants were positive about the support they received from
voluntary drug services, but had mixed experiences of primary and
hospital care. Some felt stigmatized by healthcare professionals, while
others received compassion and acknowledgment of their drug use.
“Our population is aging and the people who started using drugs in the
sixties are now reaching retirement age,” says Professor Roe.