You may think that issues of drug addiction and substance abuse are primarily the domain of youth, but it is becoming a crisis with the elderly these days, too. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates about 17 percent of adults over the age of 60 are struggling with prescription medications, alcohol or illicit drugs. However, because of limited research and rushed office visits, health care providers frequently overlook substance abuse among the senior population. Sadly, it is becoming one of the fastest growing health concerns in the U.S.
In fairness to the medical community, older adults often have health conditions or behavioral disorders that mimic symptoms of substance abuse, like diabetes, depression or dementia. Patients are often unwilling to disclose details that might “out” their addiction, so it can be challenging to diagnose and treat. Whether it’s a long-term problem or a late onset situation, substance abuse rarely resolves itself without intervention, so if you or a loved one is fighting this battle, please reach out for the help you need.
Causes of Substance Abuse in Seniors
The aging process can be a challenging time of transition. Aging brings a new set of variables to the table as bodies start to decline, pain management needs tick up, memory starts to wane, and social opportunities change.
There are lots of potential triggers for turning to drugs or alcohol in later life, including:
- Life changes due to retirement
- Death of a spouse, family member, friend or pet
- Financial concerns
- Moving to a retirement home
- Sleeping issues
- Family conflicts
- Mental health decline (loneliness, depression, anxiety, memory loss, dementia…)
- Physical health decline (heart disease, diabetes, joint pain, surgery recovery…)
Dangers of Senior Substance Abuse
Obviously, substance abuse and addiction are dangerous for any age group, but the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the deteriorating effects of these substances. Adults over the age of 65 have an increased brain sensitivity to drugs and alcohol, and a decreased ability to metabolize them.
Prescription medications can be harmful too. Seniors use prescription drugs as much as three times more than other age groups. Reports say that 83 percent of adults over 65 take a prescription drug, and 30 percent take eight or more prescriptions every day.
For example, benzodiazapines commonly used to treat pain, anxiety or insomnia, can be highly addictive and downright dangerous for seniors, yet they are frequently prescribed. The NCBI estimates that 17 to 23 percent of Americans over age 60 are prescribed a benzo, and addictions are skyrocketing. Some commonly prescribed benzos include Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam) and Valium (diazepam), many of them household names for how ready available they are.
And don’t think alcohol is a minor concern for seniors just because it’s more accepted in our culture. It is so easy to build up a tolerance to alcohol, and then it takes more and more to reach the desired effect. For many, this leads to addiction. You may start out with just a little nightcap of one or two drinks, but it can escalate into alcoholism if you’re not careful. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men and women aged 65 or older should consume no more than 1 drink daily and a maximum of 2 drinks on any occasion.
Symptoms of Addiction in the Elderly
Many of the outward signs of substance abuse can be confused with the typical declines due to old age, so it can be challenging to spot. Here are some things to look for:
- Changes in sleep habits
- Memory issues
- Irritability, sadness and depression
- Unexplained chronic pain
- Changes in usual eating habits
- Unexplained bruises
- Wishing to be alone often
- Failing to bathe, self care or keep house clean
- Losing touch with friends and loved ones
- Lack of interest in usual hobbies and activities
Treatment for Seniors with Substance Abuse Issues
Addictions aren’t just going to go away on their own. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, seek treatment with a center or program that has specific experience working with seniors. Unlike younger people, many adults over the age of 65 lack the social support that is necessary to go through recovery, so a program that involves case management services is ideal.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) recommends the following as effective substance abuse treatment approaches for older adults:
- Cognitive behavioral approaches
- Group-based approaches
- Individual counseling
- Medical/psychiatric approaches
- Marital and family involvement/family therapy
- Case Management/Community-linked services and outreach