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Misericordia faculty member testifies to the Senate Special Committee on Aging

Misericordia faculty member testifies to the Senate Special Committee on Aging

Misericordia faculty member testifies to the Senate Special Committee on Aging

William Stauffer, LSW, CCS, CADC, adjunct professor of Social Work at Misericordia University, addressed the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging's hearing on the topic "Understanding a Growing Crisis: Substance Use Disorder Among Older Adults," held on December 14 in Washington, D.C. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) serves as chairman of the committee and conducted the hearing.

Stauffer, who is also the executive director of The Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations - Alliance, returned to speak to the Special Committee following his testimony during a 2018 hearing on the growing need for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) services for older Americans.

The topic of Stauffer's testimony during the committee's December hearing focused on the stigma in healthcare and our communities regarding older adults with Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

"Stigma is a huge issue; it keeps things invisible. When a loved one dies from an alcohol-related fall, the underlying issue doesn't get reported. When someone dies from SUD, the root cause doesn't get reported," said Stauffer. "One in three healthcare providers believes that people can and do recover from SUD. If only one in three providers think people recover, people won't go to them for help. Research shows that people who get help, treatment, and the support they need will recover."

This is particularly true, according to Stauffer, for our older adult community members.

"We ignore them when they are suffering. Stigma prevents older patients from reporting they have a problem, the medical community in asking patients questions about substance use, and it even prevents family members from seeking help for their loved ones. As a result of these dynamics, perhaps the most significant fact is that we do not know the true prevalence of SUDs in the older population," he testified to the committee.

The young adults from 1978 who are turning 75 this year, had the highest level of substance use over their lifetime than those before them. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the median age in the U.S. last year was 38.9 years. In Pennsylvania, the median age was 40.9 years, the oldest of any state in the nation. Pennsylvania currently ranks fifth in the nation when it comes to the size of its population aged 65 and older (2.2 million).

The demographics reveal that our population of older adults will be increasing over the next 20 years. "We will need to think more critically about what we do concerning older adults. There are going to be even more of us in the coming years; we cannot afford to ignore their needs any longer," he said. 

The trends for substance use, dependence, and addiction mortality trends in older adults are alarming. The rate of drug use in people over 40 is increasing faster than it is among younger age groups. Drug-related deaths for users over 50 increase by 3% annually. Seventy-five percent of deaths from SUDs among users aged 50 and older are caused by opioids. In 2020, alcohol-induced causes were recorded as the underlying cause of death for 11,616 adults aged 65 and over, and age-related death rates for alcohol-induced causes have been increasing since 2011.

"We need to get ahead of this curve by providing prevention, treatment, and recovery community support for older adults," said Stauffer during his testimony.

The question then becomes, what can we do the help older adults with SUD in our communities?

Stauffer encourages the entire community — friends and loved ones of older adults with SUD, as well as medical professionals — to think about SUD in a different way; to provide care and support to these individuals the way we do with other chronic conditions like cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure.

"Older adults are looking for a purpose; let's use the talents and skills they have and support them. I've never met a person who has talents and skills that they don't want to share. We could develop an older Adult Recovery Community Corps for older adults looking for a purpose; to pair them with others to share their talents and skills while providing hope, purpose, and connection," he said.

Pennsylvania is already heading in this direction. Governor Shapiro signed an executive order last year to develop a Master Plan for Older Adults, a 10-year strategic plan designed to transform the infrastructure and coordination of services for older Pennsylvanians. It includes a focus on SUD treatment and recovery needs.

"This is a vital step to identifying not only the challenges our older adult community members face, but also their inherent strengths and talents that they offer to our society," said Stauffer.

In addition to community support, the focus of healthcare needs to change. "We need to shift our SUD service system to focus beyond acute stabilization; we do not cover all of the treatment services older adults require to sustain recovery from an SUD. Roughly 85% of people who sustain five years of recovery remain in recovery for life, but older adults don’t get a full continuum of support, because we do not fund it," he testified.

The work of the committee is far from over. Stauffer has already been contacted with additional questions from Senator Casey's staff, who are scheduling a follow-up meeting with Stauffer at his Harrisburg offices.

To watch Stauffer's testimony, click here. For more information about Misericordia's Social Work Program, click here.