Wolf Administration Highlights Resources for Seniors with Substance Use Disorders

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – Today, Pennsylvania’s Departments of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) and Aging joined Governor Tom Wolf’s Office of Advocacy and Reform (OAR) and the Association of Pennsylvania Regional Agencies on aging to discuss risk factors, racial and ethnic disparities, and resources for seniors. Pennsylvanians living with a substance use disorder.

“We know that the overdose epidemic and substance use disorders impact all ages and all demographic groups, but older adults are often an underdiagnosed population because they tend to take more prescription drugs than other age groups,” said DDAP Secretary Jen Smith. “It is important that we understand the signs and risk factors for substance use disorders in older adults and that we encourage our older neighbors and loved ones to seek treatment and resources that meet their needs. No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to reach out to help.”

A new study by JAMA Open Network found that 79,893 US residents age 55 or older died from an opioid overdose between 1999 and 2019. The annual number of deaths increased tenfold, from 518 in 1999 to 10,292 in 2019. The study also found that the opioid overdose death rate among non-Hispanic black men age 55 or older was four times higher than the overall opioid overdose death rate for people of the same age.

“The JAMA study shows that the opioid crisis is changing and that black men aged 55 and over are disproportionately affected by substance use disorders. Although there are many factors explaining this current trend , it’s clear that black men have historically been overlooked in the conversation. At the Office of Advocacy and Reform, our team is focused on addressing historical inequalities. We fully support trauma-informed approaches to inform policy and practices and maximize positive outcomes for marginalized Pennsylvanians. As a practicing psychotherapist, I also want to emphasize the critical need for meaningful and effective, strengths-based, and culturally competent psychosocial interventions and treatment models,” said said OAR Deputy Director Victor Cabral, MSW, LSW, CCTP-I.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, older people are often more susceptible to the effects of drugs because, as the body ages, it can no longer absorb and break down drugs and alcohol as easily as before. Additionally, older adults are more likely to unintentionally misuse prescription drugs by forgetting to take their medications, taking them more often than prescribed, or taking the wrong amount due to memory impairment.

The Department of Aging’s Prescribing Assistance Program for Seniors, also known as PACE, actively works with enrollees and their physicians to reduce opioid overuse, as well as provide reimbursement for medications to treat alcohol use disorders.

“Multiple chronic conditions in older adults often result in more medications being prescribed than other age groups. The risk of a dangerous drug interaction increases with the number of drugs prescribed. Adding powerful medications to treat chronic pain can lead to unforeseen issues such as falls and confusion which can lead to accidents, long recovery times and worsen mental health issues,” said Tom Snedden, Director of the PACE program. “Five percent of Pennsylvanians age 65 and older have two or more drinks each day, and the pandemic and resulting social isolation has likely increased the number of older Pennsylvanians with alcohol use disorders. “

Alcohol and substance abuse in older adults can be difficult to identify because symptoms often mimic those of other medical conditions seen in the aging population, such as memory problems, unexplained bruising, and chronic pain. Some other signs of substance use disorder in older adults include:

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Irritability, sadness and depression
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Want to be alone often
  • Not washing or staying clean
  • Losing contact with loved ones
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

“Substance use disorder in the elderly is considered one of the fastest growing health problems in America. Things that can lead to misuse and overuse include bereavement, loneliness, physical health issues, disability and pain, PTSD, loss of independence, loss of financial security, and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression,” said Lynn Cooper, a behavioral health policy specialist at the Palestinian Authority Association of Regional Agencies on Aging, “The consequences of untreated substance use disorders can be particularly severe for older adults and affect them countless ways: reduced quality of life, jeopardized independent living, increased health risks and suicide risk, and increased costs s health care. The financial and emotional costs to individuals, families and communities are immeasurable.”

Get help now

The DDAP’s Get Help Now hotline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), is a trusted resource for older adults and/or their loved ones if treatment or resources for substance use disorders are needed. . The helpline is confidential, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and staffed by trained professionals who will connect callers with resources in their community. Callers can also be linked to funding if they need help paying for treatment.

Single county authorities

County drug and alcohol offices, known as single county authorities (SCAs), often work closely with county agencies on aging (AAAs) to provide prevention programs for people seniors and are available to connect people to treatment and resources in their area. A full list of SCA contact details is available on the DDAP website.


The PACE program, funded by Pennsylvania Lottery revenue, provides comprehensive prescription drug reimbursement coverage to qualified older Pennsylvanians, many of whom require multiple medications for multiple chronic conditions. PACE and PACENET currently recruit over 250,000 seniors. Income limit extensions recently signed into law by Governor Wolf mean an additional 100,000 seniors are now eligible. Seniors interested in enrolling can call the PACE hotline at 800-225-7223.

Learn more about the PACE/PACENET program as well as other programs and services for older adults by visiting the Department of Aging website.

PA link

The PA Link to Aging and Disability Resource Centers, also known as PA Link, helps older people and people with disabilities by providing information and connecting them to supports including assistive technology to access services telehealth, check-in calls and options to help reduce social isolation. Any senior who needs help can contact the PA Link call center by phone at 1-800-753-8827 or online at www.carelink.pa.gov.

Regional agencies on aging

Pennsylvania’s 52 AAAs spanning all 67 Commonwealth counties offer virtual and in-person activities, including health and wellness programs. Seniors can locate their local AAA on the Department of Aging website.

MEDIA CONTACT: Stephany Dugan, DDAP, [email protected]
Jack Eilber, Aging, [email protected]
Shannon Zimmerman, OAR, [email protected]

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