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Wolf Administration Highlights Resources for Older Adults with Substance Use Disorder


Harrisburg, PA – Today, the Pennsylvania departments of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) and Aging joined Governor Tom Wolf's Office of Advocacy and Reform (OAR) and the Pennsylvania Association of Area Agencies on Aging to discuss risk factors, race and ethnic disparities, and resources for older Pennsylvanians living with substance use disorder.

"We know that the overdose epidemic and substance use disorder impact all ages and demographics, but older adults are often an underdiagnosed population because they tend to take more prescription medications than other age groups," said DDAP Secretary Jen Smith. "It's important that we understand the signs and risk factors of substance use disorder in older adults and encourage our older neighbors and loved ones to seek treatment and resources that fit their unique needs. No matter your age, it's never too late to reach out for help."

A new study by JAMA Open Network found that 79,893 U.S. residents 55 years or older died from an opioid overdose between 1999 to 2019. Annual numbers of deaths increased tenfold from 518 in 1999 to 10,292 in 2019. The study also found that the opioid overdose fatality rate among non-Hispanic Black men 55 years or older was four times greater than the overall opioid overdose fatality rate for persons of the same age.

"The JAMA study shows that the opioid crisis is evolving and that Black men who are 55 years and older are disproportionately impacted by substance use disorder. While there are many factors for this current trend, it is clear that Black men have been historically overlooked in the conversation. At the Office of Advocacy and Reform, our team focuses on addressing historical inequalities. We fully support trauma-informed approaches to inform policy and practice and optimize successful outcomes for marginalized Pennsylvanians. As a practicing psychotherapist, I also want to stress the critical need for meaningful and effective strength-based and culturally competent psychosocial interventions and treatment models," said OAR Deputy Director Victor Cabral, MSW, LSW, CCTP-I.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, older adults are often more susceptible to the effects of drugs because as the body ages, it cannot absorb and break down drugs and alcohol as easily as it once did. Additionally, older adults are more likely to unintentionally misuse prescription medication by forgetting to take their medication, taking it more often than prescribed, or taking the wrong amount due to memory impairment.

The Department of Aging's prescription assistance program for older adults, also known as PACE, is actively intervening with enrollees and their physicians to reduce the overuse of opioids, as well as reimburse medication to treat alcohol use disorder.

"Multiple chronic conditions among older adults often lead to the prescribing of more medications compared to other age groups. The chance of a dangerous drug interaction increases with the number of prescribed medications. The addition of powerful medications to treat chronic pain can cause unintended problems such as falling and confusion that may result in accidents, long recovery times and worsen mental health issues," said PACE Program Director Tom Snedden. "Five percent of Pennsylvanians aged 65 and over consume two drinks or more every day and the pandemic and resultant social isolation have likely increased the number of older Pennsylvanians with alcohol use disorder."

Alcohol and substance misuse in older adults may be difficult to identify because symptoms often mimic those of other medical conditions seen among 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 sleeping habits
  • Irritability, sadness, and depression
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to be alone often
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Losing touch with loved ones
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

"Substance use disorder among older adults is considered one of the fastest-growing health problems in America. Things that can lead to misuse and overuse include bereavement, loneliness, physical health problems, disability and pain, PTSD, loss of independence, loss of financial security, and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression," said Lynn Cooper, Behavioral Health Policy Specialist at the PA Association of Area Agencies on Aging. "The consequences of untreated substance use disorders can be especially grave for older adults and affect them in countless ways: reducing quality of life, jeopardizing independent living, increasing health risks and risk of suicide, and increasing health care costs. The financial and emotional costs to individuals, families, and communities are immeasurable."
Get Help Now Hotline
DDAP's Get Help Now hotline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), is a trusted resource for older adults and/or their loved ones if substance use disorder treatment or resources are needed. The hotline is confidential, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and staffed by trained professionals who will connect callers to resources in their community. Callers can also be connected with funding if they need help paying for treatment.

Single County Authorities

County drug and alcohol offices, known as Single County Authorities (SCA) often work closely with county Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) to provide prevention programming to older adults and are available to connect individuals with treatment and resources in their area. A full listing of SCA contact information can be found on the DDAP website.


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

Learn more about the PACE/PACENET program along with other programs and services for older adults by visiting the Department of Aging's website.
PA Link

The PA Link to Aging and Disability Resource Centers, also known as the PA Link, assists older adults and individuals with disabilities by providing information and connecting them to supports including assistive technology to access telehealth services, check-in calls, and options to help reduce social isolation. Any older adult needing support can contact the PA Link Call Center by phone at 1-800-753-8827 or online at

Area Agencies on Aging

Pennsylvania's 52 AAAs covering the commonwealth's 67 counties, provide virtual and in-person activities, including health and wellness programs. Older adults can locate their local AAA on the Department of Aging's website.

MEDIA CONTACT:  Stephany Dugan, DDAP,
Jack Eilber, Aging,
Shannon Zimmerman, OAR,

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