Did you know that 2.5 million older adults in the United States today have a drug or alcohol problem? There is a rising concern over the prevalence of substance abuse among adults over age 60 as research begins to shed light on a very real problem, which is the fact that there is an entire “at-risk” population we have ignored when it comes to detecting and treating addiction to alcohol and drugs, both illegal and prescription.
When it comes to addiction in older adults, most research has found there are two kinds of addicts: those who have successfully hidden an addiction since their younger years, and those who have developed their substance dependency later in life. Whatever the case may be, the problem is real. In fact, older adults get hospitalized just as frequently for problems associated with alcohol as they do for heart attacks.
If you suspect someone you love may be caught in a cycle of substance abuse or addiction, it is essential to help them by seeking assistance from a medical professional. You should also get to the root of what may have led them to that point.
Table of Contents
- Understanding the Vocabulary
- Causes of Addiction in Older Adults
- Signs of Substance Abuse in Older Adults
- Physical Consequences of Substance Use Disorders in Elderly Adults
- Is Treatment Available for My Loved One?
- Elderly Addiction Treatment Centers
Understanding the Vocabulary
Two words people frequently confuse are misuse and abuse. If a senior has a problem with drug misuse, it is typically the result of deciding to increase their dosage of prescribed medication to seek additional relief for their condition. Older adults who are misusing a prescription medication are likely doing so because their doctor needs to reevaluate their treatment plan. It is very prevalent among seniors, even more so than abuse, which is the choice to consume a substance over and over again to achieve a high or relaxed feeling and is not typically in response to a medical condition. Substance abuse, particularly in the case of alcohol, maybe the result of a more complicated mental or emotional situation.
There is also a difference between someone who is dependent on a substance and someone who is addicted to one. Over time, an older adult can become physically dependent on certain prescription medications, including some painkillers, sedatives, etc. They will experience uncomfortable side effects if they suddenly stop taking their medication, even if they have followed their doctor’s instructions to the letter. That is why it is important to consult a physician before stopping a medication. If an older adult is taking one of those medications, their doctor can help them develop a plan to cut back slowly to mitigate the withdrawal symptoms they might otherwise feel. When an adult is addicted to a substance, they continue to display compulsive consumption of a substance for the way it makes them feel, not as a prescription or as a response to a certain physical condition.
Causes of Addiction in Older Adults
When someone suspects their loved one might be addicted to alcohol or drugs, their first question may be, “How did this happen?” — particularly when an older adult begins to display an alarming behavior. The truth is, there are many reasons older adults struggle with addiction.
1. Separation From Loved Ones
Whether their children have left home and moved away, or their spouse of many years has died, often adults turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with the loneliness they experience as they age.
2. Major Life Changes
Perhaps your loved one has recently retired and finds themselves with too much time on their hands, or maybe they made the difficult choice to move from the home they lived in for decades. Transition is hard for anyone, but the stress and uncertainty associated with these upheavals for older adults can be especially harrowing.
Growing older comes with significant loss, both physical and emotional. There is a lot of stress associated with this phase of life. Compounding that is the reality that many older adults are trying to cope with all these things while also becoming more limited physically. They may be stuck at home more, unable to get out and unable to seek out friendships or other ways of coping.
Signs of Substance Abuse in Older Adults
One of the challenges with substance abuse in the elderly is that the indicators of a problem frequently either get overlooked or completely misdiagnosed. That’s because they may often mimic the symptoms of other common conditions of aging, such as depression, dementia and diabetes. Another reason is that users often go to great lengths to mask the symptoms of alcohol abuse in elderly people. However, if you’re concerned an older loved one may have a problem, there are a few key signs of alcohol abuse in older adults:
- Slurred speech
- Empty liquor or beer bottles around the house
- Change in appearance
- Smell of alcohol on their breath
- Confusion and memory loss
- A ritual of drinking before or after a meal
- Complaints of chronic conditions that have no medical evidence
- Drinking in spite of warning labels on prescription medications
- Loss of interest in activities that they once loved
- Drinking alone or secretly
Similar to alcohol addiction in elderly people, addiction to drugs, particularly prescription drugs, can also initially go undiagnosed. Prescription drug misuse and abuse in the elderly is especially challenging because the individual may have started taking the drugs under a doctor’s supervision to treat a legitimate medical issue. In fact, adults over the age of 65 are the recipients of 30 percent of all prescriptions issued in the United States.
The problem started when that person began using the medications to experience the relaxed and euphoric feelings they provided, rather than to treat an ongoing medical condition. If you suspect an older loved one has become addicted to prescription medications, there are certain signs of prescription drug abuse in the elderly:
- Requesting prescription refills before the refill date arrives
- Poor balance
- Repeatedly claiming their medications have been stolen or lost
- Appearing unusually sedated or disoriented
- Changes in appetite
- Increasingly isolating themselves
- Poor hygiene
- Mood swings
- “Shopping around” for new doctors
- Demanding narcotics from their doctors
In general, there are three classes of prescription medications that can be especially addictive when used incorrectly.
- Stimulants — Common forms of stimulants include Adderall and Ritalin, known mostly to be prescribed to younger people for treatment of ADD and ADHD. However, in older adults, these medications often get prescribed to treat obesity or narcolepsy.
- Benzodiazepines — Typically prescribed to treat insomnia, panic disorders or anxiety, as well as epilepsy and bipolar disorder, the commonly known forms of these medications include Xanax, Valium, Klonopin and Ativan. These can be especially addictive when combined with other sedatives, and if the user suddenly stops taking them, they can cause seizures, among other things.
- Opioids — Opioids treat pain, but unfortunately, they are also highly addictive. There are many different commonly known forms of these medications, including Percocet, Oxycontin, Vicodin and Norco, as well as codeine, hydromorphone, morphine and fentanyl. When seniors are addicted to painkillers, it’s particularly dangerous because it is very easy to overdose on them, and overdose can quickly lead to death. Morphine withdrawal symptoms in the elderly can be extremely uncomfortable, causing both physical and psychological distress.
Physical Consequences of Substance Use Disorders in Elderly Adults
Sometimes, when a family member discovers an elderly loved one has a substance abuse problem, they may be tempted to sweep it under the rug. Some people falsely believe there is no point in treating addiction in the elderly. Other people feel they shouldn’t take away something that brings their aging loved one some comfort. However, most people don’t realize alcohol and drug addictions are more harmful to elderly adults than any other age group.
Why? As our bodies age, our ability to process and metabolize alcohol or drugs declines. Therefore, the effects of the substances intensify, and it takes much less to generate effects. Not only that, but older adults are more likely to be taking prescription drugs, and when they combine those legally prescribed medications with illegal drugs or alcohol, even in moderate quantities, the effects can be severe and dangerous.
Another big problem is that older adults transition from the misuse of prescription drugs, as we mentioned earlier, into a full-blown addiction. In fact, older adults are much more likely to abuse and become addicted to prescription medications than illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine.
Besides the health risks and emotional consequences of substance abuse in elderly adults, another very real problem is that many medical professionals do not have the knowledge or training to recognize the signs of addiction in older patients. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the statistics. Or maybe, like you, they associated the symptoms with another condition. But, whatever the case, doctors are still not as aware of this problem as they need to be.
Is Treatment Available for My Loved One?
We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating — it is never too late to receive help for addiction. Whether a person has five years left to live or 50, they deserve the same level of care and compassion as they work to become healthy and leave their dangerous behaviors behind. Sadly, there is a tendency for people to think resources are wasteful for this older population because they are in their “twilight years.” Other people believe older adults cannot effectively enter into recovery for an addiction. These beliefs are not true, and they can result in serious risk and health complications.
Fourteen percent of emergency room admissions of elderly patients are the direct result of drug or alcohol problems. Twenty percent of elderly adults who get admitted to a psychiatric hospital get sent there because of drug or alcohol problems. In short, addiction is dangerous at any age, and it should never get overlooked.
Not only that, but it is never too late to improve someone’s quality of life. Selecting a treatment program that will treat your loved one with respect and dignity is critical to helping them restore the life they had before addiction. It is especially important to select a treatment program that strives for this, as well as accounts for the cognitive changes associated with aging.
Those elements aside, there are several treatment options available to older adults who become addicted to drugs or alcohol.
1. Group Therapy
Addiction support groups are a great source of accountability and companionship for older adults as they overcome their addiction. Not only does it provide them with the support of others who have shared their struggles, but it may also provide your loved one with the companionship to cope with the feelings of loneliness and sadness that led to their problem in the first place.
2. Individual Therapy
In a safe, confidential and one-on-one atmosphere, your loved one can work through the cause of their addiction and develop healthy solutions for coping.
In some cases, a formal rehab program may be the best option because it offers intensive, focused treatment. There are many types of programs, so it is essential to consult with medical and mental health professionals to determine which is right for your loved one.
The best course of treatment may include some combination of all three of these options. An elderly patient may find comfort and accountability in a group therapy session, but relish the environment of individual therapy as a way to express and process some of the feelings and issues that drove them toward addiction in the first place. Perhaps a doctor may determine a formal rehab program at a licensed treatment facility is the best course of action, particularly at the beginning of treatment.
Elderly Addiction Treatment Centers
When you discover your loved one has an addiction to alcohol or drugs — even prescription ones — it can be a frightening time. The truth is, no one is prepared for how to handle this, and there is no instruction manual for what to do. Seeking help for someone with an addiction is going to mean making some hard choices and doing the best you can to learn and understand along the way. But, you are stronger than you think — and so is your loved one. There is hope, and there is help.
Guiding a loved one toward the help and healing they need is one of the greatest acts of love you can display to them. If you have decided your elderly loved one needs to be in an addiction rehab program, consider Tranquil Shores. Regardless of age or reason for treatment, it is our goal to provide compassionate treatment aimed toward addressing more than just the surface of the addiction. Located in beautiful Madeira Shores, Fla., our treatment teams offer a holistic approach to rehab, going beyond the physical healing that needs to take place to dig deeper and address the circumstances and emotions that led to the addiction.
If you are looking for a treatment facility that provides a calm, peaceful environment designed to encourage healing and wellness, Tranquil Shores might be a good place to start. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, let our professional team of counselors and medical professionals help. Call and speak to one of our substance abuse counselors today.