For several decades, New Jersey, like other states, has focused most of its substance abuse prevention efforts on young people. But recently an unexpected population – older adults (60+) – has emerged with its own set of pressing substance abuse problems. New Jersey officials knew that older adults were the fastest growing segment of the state’s population, but when they looked for specific data related to older adult substance abuse, they found very little.
New Jersey’s experience is becoming more common as states struggle to better understand the nature, and scope, of substance use and abuse among this population. The need to do so is urgent because of the complexity of substance abuse issues facing older adults. As a population, older individuals experience more chronic ailments than younger people and are prescribed more drugs, including powerful painkillers that carry a high risk of misuse or addiction. Older adults experience changes in their metabolism that intensify the effects of alcohol and drugs, making them susceptible to falls, injuries, cognitive impairment, depression, overdose, and even death.
But without data, states like New Jersey cannot assess the current level and severity of substance abuse among their older adult populations. They need these data to prioritize state prevention needs and help local communities identify the types of interventions necessary to meet local needs. To address New Jersey’s own data gap, prevention officials decided to develop and conduct a telephone survey of older adults.
New Jersey Director of Prevention and Early Intervention Donald Hallcom explains, “We’ve never had data to really direct us and give us insight into what the needs actually are among the older population. This survey will give us a keener and clearer sense of that, so we can adjust our resources if necessary.”
The survey was designed to be brief but comprehensive. New Jersey officials realized they had an opportunity to draw a more complete picture of the substance abuse and related behavioral health needs of the state’s older population. So the survey included questions not just on drug and alcohol use, but also on aspects of daily life, such as access to transportation.
By itself, a question on transportation access might not appear related to substance abuse. But if older citizens do not drive and aren’t able or don’t feel comfortable taking public transportation, they may feel isolated from family and friends. They may become distressed about their isolation and they may be more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol. The survey also included questions on many of the psychological stressors that often confront older adults, such as loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
State prevention officials, together with the Institute for Families at Rutgers University School of Social Work, spent six months developing the brief, 44-item telephone survey, which was administered in August and September. Data analysis is currently underway. Ultimately, county and local community agencies will use these data to guide their planning efforts.
“Data are the key,” Hallcom says. “States have plenty of data on substance abuse by young people, but older adults face a different set of issues. The survey will help us understand the scope of what we’re facing. It will provide us with the information we need to set prevention priorities, guide our planning efforts, and be prepared.”
For more information on New Jersey’s substance abuse prevention services, visit the New Jersey Department of Human Services’ Division of Addiction Services website.