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Seniors and Substance Abuse

Seniors and substance abuse are not often associated in the collective conscience. So often we think of drug and alcohol abuse as a younger person’s problem: the curious adolescent who abuses MDMA (molly or ecstasy); the student athlete who develops prescription opioid dependency after taking them for a sports-related injury; or the high school or college student who drinks and drives and winds up crashing their car.

The reality is, however, that addiction is an alarmingly common problem among Americans over the age of sixty-five. Nearly 2.5 million older adults live with a drug or alcohol problem. Between 2006 and 2012, United States emergency rooms saw a 78 percent increase in the number of illicit and prescription drug-related admissions among Americans over sixty-five. Physical, social, and psychological factors faced by this distinct population make them particularly vulnerable to substance abuse.

Examining Substance Abuse among the Elderly

Data from the US Census Bureau indicates that senior citizens are the fastest-growing population in the country. Residents age sixty-five and over grew from 35.0 million in 2000,to 49.2 million in 2016, accounting for 12.4 percent and 15.2 percent of the total population, respectively, a little over 10 percent of which are due to opiates. In 2014, hydrocodone was the most commonly prescribed drug for patients on Medicare. Alcohol-related emergency room discharges among the elderly reached nearly three-quarters of a million in 2012, according to data from UCLA. The number of alcohol and drug-related ER admissions for seniors overall is approximately 20 percent, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).

Common Causes of Addiction among Seniors

The aging process can bring a about a number of emotional and physical stressors that can trigger substance abuse. Things like decline in health and quality of life, fragmentation of family, fear of mortality, and exit from the workforce can leave older adults feeling lost, scared, and forgotten. Data from the National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates that one-third of widows/widowers meet criteria for depression in the first month after the death of their spouse, and half of these individuals remain clinically depressed after one year. Other common reasons of addiction among seniors include but are not limited to:

  • physical medical conditions that require pain medication.
  • loss of friends and loved ones.
  • terminal illness diagnosis.
  • family estrangement.
  • feeling of a lack of purpose.
  • loneliness and isolation.
  • financial worries.

As people get older, their bodies are less able to metabolize medications quickly and break them to be expelled through waste. This means they stay in the system longer, so older people need less of them to feel the initial effects. This effect can lead to tolerance and subsequent dependency.

Recognizing Substance in an Elderly Loved One

Spotting drug or alcohol abuse in a senior citizen can be more difficult than a younger person or middle-aged adult. For one thing, it doesn’t occur to many loved ones of seniors to even be on the lookout for symptoms. Few people suspect that their parent or grandparent will fall into addiction so late in life. The reality is, however, that between 10 to 15 percent of people don’t start drinking until their advanced years, according to data from the National Council for Aging Care. In addition to alcohol and painkillers, seniors are at increased risk for abuse of prescription drugs like benzodiazepines. Nearly seventeen million prescriptions for tranquilizers are prescribed for older adults each year. Benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizing drug, are the most commonly misused and abused prescription medications, according to NCADD.

While signs and symptoms will vary from person to person, some of the more common signs of senior citizen substance use include but are not limited to:

  • drinking in solitude or isolation
  • constant preoccupation with medications.
  • empty pill or liquor bottles strewn about.
  • the smell of alcohol on the breath.
  • slurred and incoherent speech.
  • abnormal high-risk behavior.  
  • withdrawal symptoms.
  • anxiety and irritability.
  • depression and melancholy.
  • confusion and disorientation.

These symptoms are often confused for what many consider “normal” parts of the aging process; however, there is nothing normal about substance use disorder (SUD) in any age group. If your elderly loved one is exhibiting these or any other signs related to drug or alcohol use, it’s imperative that they get the help they need immediately to avoid the onset of any further effects and long-term health issues.

Treating Substance Abuse in Senior Citizens

The protocols for treating seniors for substance use disorder can be much different than those for other types of patients. On its own, the aging process creates physical and psychological complications for which treatment professional must account during the care process. Once a problem is definitively identified, respectful, compassionate, and proactive intervention is needed to get help. It’s entirely possible that your elderly loved one may not even know they’re addicted.

The treatment process should consist of specialized, compassionate, and medically supervised detox where patients can get help for their withdrawal symptoms as well as any associated medical conditions that may have triggered or been exacerbated by their substance use. Once patients are medically stabilized, they should undergo behavioral therapy, preferably from a mental health professional trained in dealing with aging issues and addiction. The realization of a substance use issue can be quite jarring for someone who has already lived so much of their lives, and the therapy process can help explore the root causes of the issue.

Certain medications like over-the-counter pain relievers and opioid maintenance drugs (if applicable) can help relieve ongoing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Don’t Let Addiction Consume Your Life

You’ve worked too hard and accomplished too much to have addiction derail your life. Millions of senior citizens are battling substance use disorder and there is no shame in admitting that you need help. By recognizing your symptoms and taking proactive measures to seek help, you’re empowering yourself to reclaim your life from addiction. If your elderly loved one is battling SUD, you have more power than you may realize to take steps to guide them toward treatment and a better life.