Drug & Alcohol Addiction in the Elderly

October 7, 2015

It has been called “an invisible epidemic”, but the abuse of drugs and alcohol among elderly patients has become one of the fastest growing health problems in the country in recent years. It’s a situation that is not often studied or identified as a problem, so it remains under the radar, but it can have a significant impact on your family and the health of your loved one.

A report published as part of the Treatment Improvement Protocol Series from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment details this growing epidemic and its impact on individuals, families, and treatment centers. The report identifies that as many as 1 in 5 older adults suffer from alcohol and prescription drug misuse, but healthcare providers often overlook it and miss the signs of dependence and addiction in older adults—especially since the symptoms can look a lot like other conditions, including diabetes, dementia, and depression—and many older adults take a high volume of prescription and over-the-counter medications anyway.

Misconceptions About the Elderly

Perhaps one of the main reasons that this growing problem has been so under-diagnosed and remains for the most part unaddressed is the fact that there are a lot of misconceptions about the elderly that contribute to our ability to overlook the problem. For example, we might expect that older adults should have a different (and lower) quality of life, or that a person who is getting older will not be alive very much longer anyway, and therefore we don’t need to worry about their personal habits. These often unspoken but pervasive assumptions that it’s not worth treating older adults can lead to the disease going un-diagnosed for years.

Concerns About Health and Quality of Life
Perhaps the biggest reasons that adult children, friends, and family should be concerned about grandparents and aging parents who are self-medicating with prescription drugs or alcohol is the fact that these habits can have a significant and detrimental effect on the elderly, often more so than in a younger population. Elderly patients who take drugs or abuse alcohol often experience psycho-social issues related to isolation and depression that can be amplified with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as biological challenges that change the way drugs and alcohol are processed in their body, putting them at higher risk for injury, severe illness, and a decline in socioeconomic status that will make an independent lifestyle all but impossible.

Identifying Drug Abuse in the Elderly
The retirement and aging of the “Baby Boom” generation has already begun, but the vast majority of older adults are expected to reach retirement age between 2010 and 2030. It’s important for family members to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the problem so they can get help for parents or loved ones if needed. Signs of drug or alcohol dependence include:

  • Sleep problems
  • Severe fatigue
  • Memory loss
  • Mood swings
  • Chronic health problems
  • Accidents or falls
  • Loss of interest in outside activities, hobbies or social interactions
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Unexplained injuries, bruises, or frequent falls
  • Defensive behavior

It’s important to note that many of these signs are often attributed to normal aging processes and other diseases, so you can also look for signs like illegal drug paraphernalia, a parent or grandparent who takes more than the prescribed drugs because the regular dose isn’t working anymore, someone who complains that the doctor won’t write them prescriptions for addictive substances, or who is “shopping” for new doctors to get multiple prescriptions.

If you notice these signs and are concerned about your loved one, don’t dismiss it. Getting them the help they need from a drug rehabilitation facility or medical professional could save their life.

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