Addiction & Alcoholism

Alcoholism and drug addiction among the elderly is one the fastest growing health issues in the country. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), there are 2.5 million older adults with an alcohol or drug problem. In fact, it is estimated that between 6 and 11 percent of elderly hospital admissions are due to an alcohol or drug problem.

Not surprisingly, drug addiction and substance abuse looks very different in the elderly population than in younger people. There isn’t always an obvious way to tell that an older person is abusing or misusing drugs or alcohol, yet learning the signs can help.

Symptoms of Addiction and Alcoholism

There are many different signs that may indicate your senior has a drinking problem. If you notice your senior exhibiting more than a couples of these signs, you may want to talk to them about their drinking habits:

  • Drinks alone, or in a hidden way
  • Drinks in spite of warning labels on prescription medications
  • Is often mildly inebriated, and/or has slurred speech
  • Disinterest in other activities or food
  • Hurting yourself or others while drinking
  • Irritable, resentful, or unreasonable when drinking
  • Medical, social, or financial problems caused by drinking

There are also various signals that will suggest your senior could be struggling with a prescription drug or substance abuse problem. If you are not sure if your elder loved one is struggling with a drug abuse issue, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much are they taking? Has this increased? (Did they use to take 2 pills a day and now are taking 5 or 6 a day?)
  • Has their mood changed? Are they more anxious, irritable, withdrawn or argumentative?
  • Are they giving excuses as to why they need the pills?
  • Have they ever been treated for alcohol or drug abuse before?
  • Have they recently changed doctors or pharmacies?
  • Do they demand pills during a doctor’s visit?
  • Have they received the same pill from two or more doctors at the same time?
  • Have their pills been “lost” or “stolen” more than once?
  • Are they constantly requesting early refills for pills?
  • Are they annoyed or uncomfortable when people talk about their medication use?
  • Do they hide or try to sneak pills?

These signs could also indicate other circumstances than drug abuse, but if you find yourself answering yes to these questions, you will want to look further into your senior’s relationship with their medications.

Addiction and Alcoholism Causes

Growing older means facing the changes as they come – all the good and the bad. It’s not always easy to embrace significant life events like children leaving home, friends becoming fewer and farther apart. Perhaps your loved one has even dealt with the death of a partner or a loved one. Typically, a senior is more at risk to become dependent on alcohol or prescription drugs after a major life-changing event. This may include but is not limited to retirement, diagnosis of a chronic health condition, or losing a spouse.

Things can seem impossible to overcome at times, however, alcoholism or substance abuse is only going to make the journey more difficult. What may start as a coping method can eventually lead to addiction, which can destroy their life and the lives of others.

How Addiction & Alcoholism is Diagnosed

In the elderly population, it can be especially hard to diagnose alcohol or substance abuse. Alcoholism in the older population tends to go undiagnosed and even unnoticed because people tend to live their lives less publicly as they get older. Because of this, even doctors might not notice, confusing symptoms of alcohol abuse with common signs of aging.

As you age, your sensitivity to alcohol increases. The reason for this is because your body doesn’t metabolize or excrete the alcohol efficiently. This results in higher blood alcohol levels and faster, long-lasting levels of intoxication. Even people who used to be moderate drinkers will find that the same amount of alcohol they used to drink will cause problems as they age.

When it comes to substance or prescription drug abuse in the elderly, it can sometimes go unnoticed because friends, family members, and even physicians may see the signs and think that they are just common signs of aging, such as confusion or forgetfulness. Elderly substance abuse can happen when seniors have trouble reading or understanding prescription instructions, or take double the dosage because they forgot they had already taken their medicine.

Before you seek help, you will want to talk to your senior about their substance habits. Your senior may not even realize that they have an addiction problem, or the risk that they are taking by using these substances. They also may not know the dangers that come with mixing alcohol and prescription medications.

To diagnose an alcohol or drug addiction issue in the elderly, you will want to have a talk with their doctor who can look at some of the signs they are exhibiting, and also consider their other medications and conditions to make a decision.

Treatments of Addiction and Alcoholism

Once you have confirmed a senior has an alcohol or addiction issue and they want help, there are various treatment options that they can take advantage of. To treat substance abuse in the elderly, you may need to get your senior into a rehabilitation center. You will want to look for programs that either specialize or have experience in elderly substance abuse. Other drug and alcohol treatment options for seniors include addiction support groups and speaking to a therapist specializing in treating addictions.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How prevalent is addiction in the elderly community?

Findings from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that 20-30 percent of people ages 75 to 85 have experienced drinking problems and, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, 3.6 percent of adults aged 60 to 64 report using an illicit drug.

If you are concerned that your loved one has an addiction problem consider these drug treatment programs for seniors.

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How prevalent is medication abuse in the senior 65+ community?

Persons aged 65 years and older comprise only 13 percent of the population, yet account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription medications in the United States. Older patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term and multiple prescriptions, and some experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper use of medications. Alternatively, those on a fixed income may abuse another person's remaining medication to save money. 

Prescription drug abuse in the elderly is more common than you think. If you believe your loved one is addicted to prescription drugs seek help immediately.

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