Drug and alcohol use and abuse isn’t restricted to the 65-and-under crowd. Studies from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (such as this one), have shown that the prevalence of alcohol and prescription drug use in older Americans is one of the fastest-growing health issues facing the country.
Why seniors use drugs
Most seniors don’t take the first steps toward a path of drug dependency as a form of recreation. Misusing medications to “get high” is much more common among young adults. Instead, older people are simply exposed to a disproportionately high volume of prescription medications, including opioids, depressants, and stimulants. Drugs commonly prescribed to seniors include opiods (painkillers for arthritis) such as, morphine, hydrocodone, and Valium, Xanax, and Adderall (benzodiazepines) for insomnia and anxiety. The addictive qualities of these medications coupled with unintentional misuse can lead to addiction. Seniors are prescribed medicines for a number of other reasons, and managing multiple medications with varying schedules can be confusing.
Depression, often triggered at this age by the loss of a spouse or close friend, further contributes to the epidemic of substance abuse in the elderly. While losing a life partner is difficult at any age, it is exceptionally hard on widows and widowers who have been married for decades. Many people describe it as losing a part of themselves, which contributes to a significantly elevated risk of death within six months after the death of a spouse.
After a senior loses a spouse
Grief is a powerful emotion that may lead to uncharacteristic behaviors. During this time, it’s important to be aware of any signs of alcohol or drug abuse, such as sudden memory problems, insomnia, unexplained bruises, rejecting social interactions, and poor personal hygiene. According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, men are at a higher risk of developing a substance abuse problem than women. Loneliness is often to blame for the addition of new risky behaviors.
Missed and misdiagnosed
It can be difficult to properly diagnose substance abuse in seniors for a variety of reasons. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that a combination of the natural effects of aging, a lack of awareness, and limited research, contribute to scores of misdiagnoses each year. Caregivers, friends, and relatives may easily shrug off signs of impairment, citing age as a perfectly acceptable excuse for slurred speech, memory loss, or someone having a few too many cocktails. Unfortunately, it is just this attitude that perpetuates the problem, leading to an early grave for many overlooked older adults.
If you suspect that your father, grandmother, or other elderly loved one has begun abusing alcohol or other substances, talk to them about your concerns. Avoid accusatory tones and explain that you are worried about their well-being. You should be direct and talk to them like an adult, not a child. Never initiate a conversation about substance abuse when the other person is drinking or is improperly medicated. If he or she is willing to discuss the matter further, ask for a list of their prescription and over-the-counter medications. Offer to accompany them to visit with a doctor to explore ways to treat existing medical conditions without relying solely on prescription medications.
It is not easy confronting a member of the Greatest Generation about a drug problem. Fortunately, the recovery rate for alcohol and drug abuse in senior citizens is the highest of all age groups. Be prepared for some pushback as they struggle to process their feelings, and overcome the side-effects of their actions. They may need to go through an acute medical detoxification, as withdrawal from alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines can lead to life-threatening symptoms. Stay in touch and take measures to ensure that your elderly companion has access to a variety of healthy activities and fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food choices. Your love and support, will be a key factor in helping them find the path back to enjoy an exceptional quality of life.
Jackie Waters is a mother of four boys, and lives on a farm in Oregon. She is passionate about providing a healthy and happy home for her family, and aims to provide advice for others on how to do the same with her site: Hyper-Tidy.com