Substance abuse is a high-profile topic: Anti-drug and alcohol awareness discussions are a standard part of most secondary school and college educations. However, elderly and substance abuse is not commonly discussed.
By 2030, individuals over 65 years of age will account for roughly 20% of the population of the United States. Medical science has produced the longest expected average life span (76 years) in human history, but unfortunately, people who live longer are at higher risk of living alone. Almost half of nursing home residents have problems related to alcohol. Females in particular tend to live longer than their male partners, and due to a more globalized economy, adult children are more likely to live in a different area than their parents. These social conditions can create an atmosphere in which addiction is more likely for older adults, and currently, there are 2.5 million members of the elderly community who suffer from substance abuse.
How Does Substance Abuse Develop?
Substance abuse occurs when drugs or alcohol (or both) are used in a way that is harmful to the individual. The most commonly abused substance among the elderly is alcohol, although mainstream drugs like cocaine and heroin are also present. Older women tend to be at greater risk for alcohol abuse thanks to a greater risk of depression and feelings of isolation along with a lower physiological tolerance to the drug. Unfortunately, binge drinking in either sex can double the individual’s risk of dying within the following 20 years. Alcohol can severely damage organs, notably the liver and brain, in older adults and can be especially dangerous when paired with prescribed medications.
Medication misuse may be as innocent as failing to understand how to correctly take the medication or may be as deliberate as misusing leftover medications to achieve a desired state of mood. An adult may not use prescribed medicine correctly because they didn’t understand how to take it, because the bottles are too difficult to open, or because the medication schedule may be confusing. Spouses and friends may trade prescription pills among one another without understanding how that drug will interact with other medications. Tranquilizer drugs, such as benzodiazepines, are a popular option for mood regulation.
Aging and Addiction
The elderly and substance abuse or medication misuse can be difficult to detect among older people, in part due to confusion with the natural signs of aging. Signs of alcohol or drug addiction can include weight loss, a decrease in appetite, depression or anxiety, memory loss, an increase in falling, poor personal hygiene, and evasiveness when asked directly about drug or alcohol usage. The good news is that older adults benefit just as much from treatment as younger adults, and getting treatment for an older relative can be as simple as sitting down and discussing the issue with them. Age will not change the response to such a conversation: The adult in question may attempt to deflect questions with excuses or by throwing focus onto the questioner (“It’s not your business!”). It is important to remain compassionate and non-judgmental throughout the conversation while directly addressing any concerns.
Older people have different psychological and physiological predispositions than their younger counterparts. Members of the elderly community tend to be confronted more frequently with the death of friends and loved ones, and when coupled with natural health issues and a decline in independence, this creates an environment in which addiction is more likely. Older people also tend to have more fragile bodies, in terms of both organs and bones, as a natural result of aging. Harmful substances therefore have a harsher effect on bodies that are more prone to injury. A particular concern is the effect of drugs on the brain. Brain tissue naturally breaks down as an individual ages, and drug use can drastically increase the rate of decay or influence the brain in negative ways, resulting in changes in mood and decision-making.
Treatment for Elderly and Substance Abuse
A good way to combat drug and alcohol use is to identify it early. In the case of alcohol, identifying risky drinking can prevent later alcohol addiction or dependence. The trick, as with any food or drink, is moderation in consumption and diligent monitoring, especially for the elderly, of the effects of alcohol on the mind and body of the individual.
If someone in your life suffers from a substance abuse problem, then call Morningside Recovery today at 855-631-2135. We offer specialized rehab programs and mental health rehab services to help elderly and substance abuse problems. Help your loved one step out of the darkness and make the call today.