Addiction can affect people of all ages. Unfortunately, many tend to forget or overlook our senior population when considering this fact. There are more people over the age of 65 in our country than ever before; thanks to the wonders of modern science, people are living longer, and in many cases, are staying healthier longer too. In 2012, there were 43.1 million adults over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and that number is predicted to double by 2050. Many people aging into this group today are from the Baby Boomer generation born between 1946 and 1964, but Generation Xers, Millenials, and Centennials will soon follow as well.
As this age group grows, sadly, so does the scope and size of problems within it. It has been estimated that over 2.5 million older adults suffer from a drug or alcohol problem, and hospitals report that six to eleven percent of their admissions among this age group are due to drug or alcohol issues. Older adults certainly deserve the respect of younger folks, and with this comes a responsibility to help them. Just as addiction can affect people of all ages, people of all ages can benefit from intervention, support, treatment, and rehabilitation as well. The addiction treatment community is beginning to see the need for specialized assistance for addicted individuals over 65. There are many reasons that the elderly may become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and they have special needs when it comes to treatment. When these special needs are identified and specific programs and methods are implemented, much success in helping older people with drug and alcohol problems can be found.
Alcoholism in Older Adults
According to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, there are two different types of addicts in this age group. One is “the hardy survivor,” someone who has abused drugs or alcohol for decades and grew into a senior. The other is “the late onset” group, which is made up of people who form addictions later in life. While there are certainly both types in the areas of drug and alcohol addiction, the majority of older alcohols tend to be in the former group. Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the United States, and the journal Psych Central reported in 2015 that three million seniors struggle with alcohol abuse, and due to the increase of older adults even currently, that number may double to six million by 2020. Older adults are hospitalize for alcohol problems as often as for heart attacks, and some estimates say that as many as 50% of nursing home residents have alcohol problems. Alcoholism among the elderly is clearly a huge problem, and unfortunately, it is usually not addressed as often as it should be.
Drug Addiction in Older Adults
Although some seniors who are addicted to drugs have been abusing drugs for much of their lives, therby putting them in the “hardy survivor” group listed above, more elderly drug addicts are in the “late onset” group. Much of this is due to the fact that older people are prescribed so many prescription drugs, usually for very legitimate reasons. Although people age 65 and older are currently only 13% of the US population, they account for over 30% of our prescriptions. Journal Psychiatric Times says that as many as 11% of seniors that are prescribed medication may be abusing that medication. The majority of prescriptions for this age group are tranquilizers and anti-anxiety medications (mainly benzodiazepines) and painkillers (often opioids); these types of medications can be a very slippery slope and can quickly lead to addiction, but they are also usually prescribed for very real issues. People who take these drugs in this age group are not taking them to get high, but out of necessity, and that can make an addiction difficult to identify and even more difficult to treat. According to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., 30% of adults over the age of 65 are on some sort of prescription medicine, and the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services says that 17% of these people have abused these prescription medications at least once, if not more frequently.
Reasons Elderly Folks Become Addicted
Besides the facts that alcohol is easily accessible and many prescription drugs are inherently addictive, why are seniors so susceptible to addiction? There are a number of reasons that they are at risk. As people enter their golden years, many things in their lives may change. Their children may move out or away, and they may experience empty nest syndrome as a result. Friends become fewer and farther apart, or a spouse may pass away, leaving the individual feeling abandoned and lonely. It may become necessary for the individual to give up a job or move to a new area, and that can be very stressful for anyone. Or, the issues may be personally physical, emotional, or mental; the person may experience conflict with family members, may have difficulty sleeping and may require sleep aids, or may suddenly experience a decline in mental or physical health, such as depression, memory loss, an upsetting diagnosis, or a major surgery. Any of these things can change a person’s entire life, and can trigger the beginning of a new addiction, or the exacerbation of an existing one.
Signs of Addiction in Seniors
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify and treat drug or alcohol addiction in seniors, because many of the symptoms of either may mimic the symptoms of other medical issues frequent in this age group such as diabetes, dementia, depression, or others. However, there are signs for which loved ones can be on the look out; if numerous signs appear suddenly or in a short time, it’s possible the individual may be suffering from an addiction. Some of these signs may include:
- Solitary or secretive drinking
- A ritual of drinking before or after dinner every night
- Loss of interest in hobbies or other things they used to enjoy
- Slurred speech or a smell of alcohol
- Drinking in spite of warnings on prescription drugs
- Chronic, unexplained, and unsupported health complaints
- Memory loss and confusion
- Changes in sleeping and eating habits
- Wanting to be alone often
- Failing to bathe or keep clean
- Losing touch with loved ones
How to Help
As mentioned above, it is difficult to identify, and in turn treat, addiction in older adults. Not only is it hard to spot, but the affected individual may not recognize that he or she has a problem, and may be resistant. Stigma and shame may also be an issue; many people in this age group don’t want to seek help because they consider it a private matter. Further, many people don’t worry about their addiction too much (or that of a loved one) because they figure the person is old, will pass soon, and is therefore not worth treating.
All of these obstacles can be overcome, though. An intervention may be necessary at first. Unlike larger interventions often organized for younger people, an older individual may most benefit from being approached by a smaller group of very close loved ones such as a child, a grandchild, a spouse, or a close medical professional, and the smaller group size may help to keep them from feeling overwhelmed.
Once they are convinced that there is a problem, and are encouraged to seek treatment, they may benefit from addiction support groups and group therapy, individual therapy, or even residential rehabilitation programs. More and more addiction treatment centers are beginning to cater to this specific demographic and many have organized programs specifically for older adults. At any age, it is often helpful to be in treatment with peers who understand their issues, and this age group is no exception. Many older adults may be happily surprised to learn that their Medicare benefits may include mental health and substance abuse treatment at some facilities, simplifying the obstacles of treatment even further, too.
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