Often when we think of recovery, the first images that come to mind may those of teens or middle age adults — perhaps a kid who got mixed up with the wrong crowd or a person who has been battling demons for a several years.

We rarely think about older adults age 65+. And that’s a problem.

The challenges with older adults can be more complicated. After years of addictions, many may feel that they are too old to try recovery – or too old to try again. They may perceive that they have burned too many bridges at this point in their lives and ask the question of “What do I have to live for?”

That’s the addiction talking.

It is our job as professionals to help our older adults see the value of recovery. The experience they have to offer is invaluable, whether to their families, to society or to others who hope for recovery. The number of adults aged 50 or older with substance use disorder is projected to double from 2.8 million (annual average) in 2002–06 to 5.7 million in 2020. Increases are projected for all examined gender, race/ethnicity and age groups. We cannot afford to ignore such a large segment of the population.

Additionally, some studies indicate that older adults can do somewhat better than younger adults in recovery. This means that time and energy providing older adults with resources and support are well spent.

The role of a primary care clinician can be the link to treatment that these patients so desperately need. Most will not seek out treatment on their own. This is where clinicians can step up and implement one simple action – SCREEN THE PATIENT.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has prioritized depression and alcohol screening for primary care physicians, because these practitioners have an invaluable relationship with their patients. Using these relationships can allow people to talk about and normalize their struggles. Once they feel that they have someone safe to talk with about their issues, they may be more willing to follow through with getting help when referred.

While the discussion around addiction has progressed in the last several years to try and become more understanding of addiction as a disease, older adults may be less likely to be willing to seek out formal treatment (particularly inpatient treatment) because of the fear of being stigmatized. Because of this, physicians may need to be more willing to treat the complex medical issues that arise during recovery for older adults in their office. CMS has also expressed an understanding of this issue by offering support for providers to engage in the evaluation and management of alcohol use as well as face to face counseling up to four times per year.

Primary care physicians remain the essential, ongoing relationship that can help patients cope with so many types of disease. Mental health and addiction issues should be no different. Physicians can use the extensive knowledge that they have coupled with the individual relationships that they develop to help older adults live their best lives. The quality of those lives can be improved at any age and stage of development.

Just as patients are relying on their physicians to help, physicians can rely on their advisors from Qsource to help them connect to information and resources from everything on how to bill these complex cases to how to find resources for treatment.

Visit atomalliance.org for resources and continuing education. Local advisors from each state are happy to help find answers to questions to help promote the great work that you are doing to keep older adults healthy.