Senior Adult Substance Abuse

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The elderly population is a demographic that is suffering in silence. How? Elderly adults are often less visible in discussions of drug and alcohol abuse. According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ), an estimated 6 million elderly adults will have a substance use disorder disorder (SUD) by the year 2020. The CBHSQ also reports that in 2014, 3.4 million elderly adults engaged in binge drinking and close to 1 million elderly adults had an alcohol abuse disorder.

Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly

Substance use disorder is not only the over consumption of an illegal drug such as heroin or cocaine. Abuse of a prescription is also substance use disorder. Many elderly adults use prescription drugs from medical doctors. In fact, even though adults 65 years old and older make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population, the elderly make up for about 33 percent of the prescription drugs prescribed in the nation.

Elderly adults often take prescription drugs because they suffer from serious ailments and powerful prescription drugs might provide relief. But, elderly people should take doctor-prescribed drugs with care. For one, if elderly adults with severe health problems misuse medications, they can make their conditions worse. Or, elderly adults might be using other prescriptions that could cause dangerous interactions with their new prescriptions.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices often report medical complications caused by such misuses of a prescription drugs. Doctors advise elderly patients to follow precise instructions when they take prescription drugs and to inform doctors of all of the other medications and substances they are using.

Even prescription drugs can be abused and addictive. Elderly adults have fallen victim to drug abuse. This is partly due to the misconception that since doctors prescribe it, a prescription drug is safe and more difficult to abuse. Moreover, many may feel they are not addicts because they have this legal prescription.

Many prescription drugs from primary care doctors are actually safe if people use them correctly. Elderly people and their doctors should know their medical histories and health conditions. This knowledge can help make their drug prescription treatment safer and more effective.

It is important for elderly adults to work with medical healthcare professionals to learn the possible dangers of drug interaction, prescription misuse, and drug abuse. Medical professionals work to prescribe the right kinds of prescription drugs. They can help elderly adults monitor them and their conditions while they use prescription drugs. This help for drug or alcohol abuse can come from rehab centers, 12-step programs, sobriety programs such as SMART Recovery, counseling, or a combination of these. Holistic addiction treatment may also be helpful as the main goal of this treatment is to provide patients with natural ways to cope with pain and other ailments without prescription drugs.

It is also important for elderly people to use their prescription as prescribed by their doctors. Elderly adults are often at risk for not using their prescription drugs as prescribed. This may be due to forgetfulness, confusion, or mood changes and even boredom. Or, elderly adults might experience emotional changes that could lead to the abuse of prescription drugs because they feel they can use the drugs as ways to cope with their emotions.

Signs of Substance Use Disorder in the Elderly

Prescription drug medications are intended to help elderly people treat health ailments. Many aging adults battle chronic or long-term illnesses. Doctors and nurses should be careful when prescribing medications to the elderly. Alcohol and prescription drug medications can have severe adverse side effects on anyone, but can especially affect the elderly. Some signs of substance use disorder include:

  • Changes in appearance and personal grooming
  • Slurred speech
  • Increases in health problems
  • Running out of prescription
  • Losses of interest in hobbies
  • Neglect of work or family responsibilities
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Depression or aggression
  • Financial problems that were never there

If you suspect your loved one is abusing drugs or alcohol it may be helpful to sit them down and discuss your concerns. It is never too late to end an addiction and this is true with elderly adults as well.

Elderly Adults and Addiction

Addiction does not discriminate. Any person who abuses a drug or alcohol is at risk for developing an addiction. Elderly adults are among a growing population of about 23 million people who suffer from drug or alcohol abuse.

Substance use disorder is the deliberate overconsumption of addictive substances such as alcohol or a drug. Enhancing one’s mood (also known as getting high) is often a major reason people abuse drugs or alcohol. Drugs and alcohol can affect senior citizens differently from how they affect others, and the symptoms of being high or drunk might resemble symptoms people normally associate with aging, such as coordination problems and falls and odd behaviors. Addiction forms when users can no longer control their drug and alcohol use. Elderly adults have been an ignored demographic that has been affected by drug and alcohol abuse.

Addiction Is a Medical Condition

Addiction is related to dependency on a drug or alcohol. If an addiction forms, elderly people who once had the ability to stop drinking alcohol or using drugs may find themselves lacking the control to stop.

The variety of chemicals in drugs and alcohol alters processes inside humans’ brains and the rest of their bodies. The chemicals interrupt communication signals in the brain that are responsible for how people process information and are responsible for behaviors such as self-control. Elderly adults put themselves at great health risk when they abuse alcohol or a drug.

Treatment for substance use disorder requires experienced medical care. Elderly adults who are struggling with substance use disorder have a better chance at recovery with an early diagnosis of a drug and alcohol abuse disorder.

Heed the Warnings of Prescription Drug Medications

Reading and following warning labels for prescription drugs are other ways to avoid adverse drug reactions. Warnings on prescription medications warn users not to consume alcohol while using the drugs. The warning labels attempt to protect people from potential dangers posed by the drugs and warn people about the drugs’ interactions with other substances.

While these warnings are not perfect, they remind elderly adults and others that drugs can be both beneficial and dangerous. They can help many conditions but people can also abuse them.

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Solutions to Substance Abuse in the Elderly

As people enter their elderly years they may have feelings of boredom, or miss old friends who have passed away. Some elders may find it beneficial to engage in more events and socialize with other elderly folks. If you have an elder family member you are concerned about it may be helpful to have them attend some sort of addiction treatment. Upon completion making yourself a resource to them by driving them to meetings or social events could be very helpful. Sometimes elderly adults need to know people care for them and are willing to take them to social functions. Being there for your elderly loved ones can go a long way in their recovery from substance abuse.

Resources for Elderly Loved Ones

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance use disorder, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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