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Substance Abuse Among Older Adults

When you picture an addict, images from movies or the media of the stereotypical junkie probably come to mind. Substance abuse isn’t limited to this stigma, however. The number of older adults struggling with drug or alcohol addiction is growing every day.

From alcoholism to opioid abuse, this unique issue among people 65 and older is frequently underestimated and often under-diagnosed. This can prevent older adults from getting addiction treatment. It doesn’t help that many of the symptoms of substance abuse mimic other medical or behavioral conditions common among elderly patients, such as dementia or diabetes.

If you suspect you or your elderly loved one may have a substance use problem, there is help available. First, you must recognize the signs of addiction as substance abuse in the elderly has unique issues and concerns.

Causes of Late-Onset Alcoholism and Addiction

In general, there are two forms of substance abuse among older adults. The hardy survivor is an elderly addict who has been abusing drugs or alcohol for years. While the late-onset addict is someone who formed a substance use disorder later in life.

Elderly adults are less likely to use drugs or alcohol to get high. Instead, they use these substances to reduce physical pain or handle emotional difficulties. There are several potential triggers, both health-related and life-changing events, which can contribute to late-onset drug addiction or elderly alcoholism:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Financial worries
  • Family conflict
  • Death of a loved one
  • Emotional or physical pain
  • Transitioning to retirement
  • Relocation to a nursing home
  • Loss of purpose
  • Lessened physical ability
  • More free time and less responsibility
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Decline in mental or physical health

While drug and alcohol abuse is dangerous for anyone, it poses a particular danger to older adults. Seniors are more susceptible to the deteriorating effects of these substances. As someone gets older, their body decreases the ability to metabolize drugs and alcohol. Also, the brain becomes increasingly sensitive to them.

Substances Most Commonly Abused Among Elderly Addicts

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among older adults. However, about half of the prescription drugs in the U.S. are given to the elderly. That means a growing number of elderly drug abuse to drugs such as opioids used for pain and benzodiazepines for insomnia and anxiety.

Signs of Alcoholism in the Elderly Population

The signs of alcoholism and drug abuse are different in older adults than those from younger generations. Some possible signs of addiction could include physical symptoms such as:

  • Frequent injuries
  • Increased tolerance to medication
  • Blackouts
  • Sleep disturbances

Some psychiatric symptoms could also suggest a substance abuse problem, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Mood swings

Some of the most obvious signs that can indicate addiction are social symptoms, including:

  • Legal problems
  • Financial issues or asking for funds
  • Family difficulties and conflict
  • Seeking out extra medication

Getting Help for an Elderly Loved One

Health care providers and loved ones sometimes overlook substance abuse among the elderly because they don’t know what to look for. Even if you do suspect a loved one is struggling with addiction, you may be wary about confronting them out of fear of offending or angering them. Sometimes children make excuses for their elderly parent’s drug or alcohol use. You may think they’re not harming anyone or they should enjoy their golden years.

Even if you live far away from your older relative or loved one, you can still help. Educate yourself about the symptoms of alcoholism or elderly medication abuse. It’s also important to know treatment is available no matter how old they are.

Then it’s time to start a conversation, whether by telephone, in person or even in writing. Don’t worry about saying things perfectly. The most important thing is to express your concern for their health and well-being with love, gentleness and respect. Be direct. Be specific. Show them you care.

What Addicted Older Adults Can Expect in Treatment

Treatment is different for older adults than for younger individuals. Because of a slowed metabolism, they need a longer detox period. Treatment must also be individualized to address their specific needs. Thankfully, recovery rates tend to be higher among seniors. Their positive life experience helps them focus on the benefits of rehab, which can make them more disciplined in their recovery.

One key to success is connecting elderly patients with their peers. They may find it difficult being in group situations with those in their 20s or 30s. At Gateway, our Alcohol Use Disorder program is designed specifically to meet the needs of older adults. Elderly patients in this alcohol addiction treatment program can expect to benefit from medication-assistant treatment, personalized care and an active alumni community of older adults committed to recovery.

Maybe you’re an older adult, and you suspect you may have an addiction to alcohol or prescription drugs. Or, maybe you suspect your elderly loved one has a substance use disorder. Either way, Gateway is here to help. Our individualized, holistic approach to patient care ensures you get help tailored to your exact needs. Don’t wait one more day. Contact us to learn about our evidence-based treatment programs.

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