America’s senior population may be the last group you think of when you picture people who suffer from drug addiction. Sadly, this is not the case. An increasing number of older Americans are struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Sometimes, it may be very difficult to determine if drug or alcohol abuse is taking place. That is because many signs of addiction can appear very similar to those of simply getting older. Knowing the signs to look for is important when assessing whether you or a loved one needs help.
It is important to realize that there is ample help available for older adults.There are numerous resources and ways in which our older population can get help with their addiction to drugs and alcohol.
To help you navigate through this article, click on the topic of interest below:
- Substance abuse in elderly people
- Challenges of treating addiction in elderly people
- Prevalence of substance abuse in senior citizens
- Differences in rehab treatment for elderly people
- Signs to watch for in your loved one
- How and where to get help
According to the US Census Bureau, there were approximately 76 million Americans who were born between 1946 and 1964. This group of “Baby Boomers” makes up about 30% of the total US population, with about half of them already reaching an age today where they would be considered a “senior citizen.”
The number of elderly adults is expected to nearly double from 40 million in 2010 to 73 million in the year 2030. This rapidly growing population grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, when experimenting with drugs was a common social occurrence. This could be a valid explanation to why there is an increasing number of senior Americans who are struggling with an addiction to alcohol or drugs today.
Substance abuse in elderly people
Growing older can bring many changes. As kids grow up, they eventually leave the house to start families of their own. The empty nest syndrome, which can occur after all of one’s children move out of the home, can bring loneliness and sometimes depression in many aging people.
Many older folks also feel intense pain from losing a loved one who has died. Losing a spouse, family member, or close friend can make people realize their own mortality, often leading to feelings of sadness. Seniors may also experience a loss of mobility and, therefore, a loss of their independence. This too can lead to anxiety and feeling depressed. If left untreated, this can turn into an underlying condition that could spark a dependence on drugs or alcohol.
Seniors make up approximately 13% of our total population, but 30% of all prescriptions are written to these patients each year. The fact that older Americans see the doctor more often than younger people could be a simple explanation for this. After all, getting older is not always easy.
As we age, it is common for people to begin to suffer from aches and pains that our younger bodies did not have a problem with. Other medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and more, can cause aging people to seek the care of their physician more often than the average person.
Oftentimes, these visits lead to additional medications that are prescribed to help people feel better. Although these medications are usually prescribed with the best of intentions, the chances of a person developing a dependence on the drug can increase, especially if underlying and untreated mental health issues already exist.
Challenges of treating drug and alcohol addiction in elderly people
One of the biggest challenges faced with treating drug and alcohol addiction in older generations is the simple fact that it can be very difficult to determine whether or not a misuse of drugs or alcohol is present at all. Many of the signs and symptoms we look for when we are concerned about a loved one’s substance use can appear to be typical signs of aging. This can make it very difficult to distinguish between the two, often leaving actual drug misuse undiagnosed.
It is also difficult to determine when a drug addiction exists if the drugs that are being abused are legally prescribed to that person by their physician to treat a medical condition. Any original suspicions of drug abuse may be dismissed without further action when people consider that the medication was given by a doctor to legitimately treat a medical problem.
Additionally, because many aging people have more medical conditions, they also tend to have many more medications that they need to take. The more medications that are taken each day, the higher the chance becomes of an issue occurring that is ultimately not healthy for the patient.
It is also difficult for concerned family members or friends to challenge the use or consumption of drugs or alcohol by our elders. It can easily be viewed as disrespectful to question how much our parents or grandparents are drinking, or if they are taking their medication properly. This fear of stepping over an imaginary boundary could keep a concerned family member from speaking up even if they are worried.
How prevalent is substance abuse in seniors?
Substance abuse amongst seniors is more prevalent than you might think. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), there are approximately 2.5 million seniors who have a drug problem. Their site also reports that nearly 50% of nursing home patients have an alcohol-related problem, and that widowers over the age of 75 are the group with the highest rate of alcoholism in the United States. Older adults are actually hospitalized for alcohol-related issues just as often as they are for heart attacks.
The most common substances that seniors misuse are alcohol and prescription medications. Alcohol can be especially dangerous to aging people because even a small amount can cause serious complications with pre-existing medical conditions. It can also have adverse effects if it interacts with medications. Additionally, alcohol can impair some older people quicker than their younger counterparts, and when combined with slower reaction times or instability due to age, the results can be severe.
Seniors are prescribed three times more medications than younger generations and they also purchase nearly 75% of all over-the-counter medicines, so it makes sense that they are more likely to misuse the drugs. A large portion of medication misuse may be unintentional. As the body ages, the liver and kidneys change as well, which affects the way drugs get digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. This can cause different effects for older adults than the same medication and dose would for younger adults.
Additionally, seniors are the most likely group to visit multiple doctors for various medical conditions. These doctors may be unaware of other medications that have already been prescribed and could order additional medicine that could interact negatively with the first one. This can cause confusion and other mental concerns that could result in the drugs being inadvertently misused.
How is treatment different for elderly people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol?
There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to addiction. Every individual has their own unique story, their own strengths, and their own weaknesses. Because of this, each person will respond differently to various treatment methods, regardless of their age or the reason they misuse substances.
There are many treatment methods available today, many of which have proven very successful in helping people turn their life around when they have become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some of these methods include:
Group Therapy: Treatment that takes place in a group setting where people have the opportunity to share and learn from their peers who experience similar struggles and challenges.
Individual Counseling: One-on-one sessions between the patient and the counselor where any topic can be safely discussed in confidentiality.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Treatment that is based on the idea that behavior is learned, and can therefore be “unlearned.” When used in drug rehab, it focuses primarily on changing the negative thoughts an individual has that may be causing them to turn to drugs or alcohol.
Holistic Treatment: Treatment which focuses on the body, the mind, and the spirit. This approach believes that treatment must aim at healing the whole person, not just the behaviors of that individual.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): A process that involves recalling troubling situations from the past that have impacted the present, while going through a process of reprogramming the brain’s memory of that event.
Family Therapy: A type of group therapy that involves the therapist, the patient, immediate family, and loved ones. It focuses primarily on the relationships within the family structure and how to repair lines of effective communication.
Dual Diagnosis: Dual diagnosis treatment is for individuals who suffer from addiction in addition to a mental health disorder. This could be PTSD, depression, anxiety, or a number of other issues.
If you or a loved one is ready for treatment, the best option for you could be any one of the therapy options listed above, or a combination of several. Reaching out for help is the first step.
Signs to watch for in your loved one
While it may be difficult to detect symptoms of a drug or alcohol problem in seniors, there are some signs you can be looking for. They include:
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Irritability, sadness, depression
- Chronic pain
- Changes in eating habits
- Wanting to be alone often
- Neglecting hygiene or personal appearance
- Losing touch with loved ones
- Lack of interest in usual activities
- Drinking alone
- Confusion or memory loss
- Slurred speech
- Ignoring instructions on medications
There are many options available for seniors who are ready to get help for their drug or alcohol addiction. Whether it is drinking too much, abusing their prescription medications, or something else entirely, there are programs and resources available to help.
You can find meetings and programs that are exclusively for older individuals. These may be best because you will be surrounded by people from your generation who are facing similar challenges and struggles, and you will have the opportunity to support one another in a comfortable, confidential setting. Some of these programs include luxury rehab options where you might have private sleeping quarters, a chef who prepares your meals, and facilities that provide the highest level of comfort.
It’s important to remember that no matter your age, it is never too late to start living the sober life you deserve. Below are some other options for you or your loved one to find help. Whichever option you choose, don’t delay. Getting help is imperative for a happy and healthy future. The first step is making a call.
NIDA publications and treatment materials are available from this information source. Staff provide assistance in English and Spanish, and have TTY/TDD capability. Call them at 877-643-2644; TTY/TDD: 240-645-0228; or email [email protected]
The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure. Find more information at nimh.nih.gov or by calling 301-443-4513.
This database of interventions for the prevention and treatment of mental and substance use disorders is maintained by SAMHSA.
This is part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and is responsible for supporting treatment services through a block grant program, as well as disseminating findings to the field and promoting their adoption. CSAT also operates the 24-hour National Treatment Referral Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP.
A matter-of-fact overview of alcoholism for seniors that is available online.
An Alcoholics Anonymous support group for the adult children of alcoholics, which may be useful for finding strength, resources, and comfort if your parent is struggling with addiction to alcohol.
As the research agency of the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) supports research, evaluation, and demonstration programs relating to drug abuse in the context of crime and the criminal justice system. For information, including a wealth of publications, contact the National Criminal Justice Reference Service at 800-851-3420 or 301-519-5500.
This extensive online resource contains the information you need to find a therapist, counselor, support group, or treatment center near you.
This online store has a wide range of helpful products, including manuals, brochures, videos, and other publications. You can also reach them by phone at 800-487-4889.
A book about eight people who began Alcoholics Anonymous in their sixties or later that may inspire you or your loved one who may think it is too late for them to receive help.
For more information on federally and privately supported clinical trials, please visit the substance related disorders page which contains information about new promising treatments for addiction and other issues.