A Guide To Understanding And Helping Seniors Overcome Substance Use Disorders
Seniors and Addiction
Addiction to drugs or alcohol can occur at any age. For seniors, the signs of addiction can be different than those seen in younger adults. Many seniors are misdiagnosed, as drug or alcohol addiction can look much like a health-related issue instead. It is best to look at each person suffering from addiction and develops a treatment plan that will meet their needs, no matter where they are on the age spectrum.
Prevalence of Seniors Addicted to Substances
The number of seniors addicted to drugs or alcohol is higher than many people expect. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Drug Abuse Warning Network data indicate that on an average day, there were over 2,000 drug-related ER visits for older adults.
Of these, nearly 300 involved illegal drug use, non-medical use of pharmaceuticals, or use of alcohol combined with other drugs”. This number continues to rise as seniors are not getting adequate treatment for addiction or education around the consequences of mixing medications with alcohol or other drugs.
Reasons Seniors Might Use Drugs or Alcohol
The reasons seniors might turn to drugs or alcohol are universal. Many recovery facilities treat seniors who began using substances out of loneliness after a loss of a spouse, siblings or friends. Seniors are at a higher risk for isolation, and this can bring out addictive behavior in some individuals. As navigating life becomes more difficult, some turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort. Like other adults, some seniors become addicted to prescription pain killers and don’t know how to stop or even realize they have an addiction to overcome.
What Drug or Alcohol Addiction Looks Like with Seniors
Drug or alcohol addiction among seniors generally has a subtler appearance. While a working adult might struggle getting to work each day or show signs of physical health problems, an older adult doesn’t generally have a tight schedule to keep. Drug or alcohol addiction signs can be easier to miss, as older adults are also showing signs of deteriorating health because of age.
Signs that a senior is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction include:
- Habitual drinking that is a routine that can’t be broken.
- Drinking at home alone or using substances in private. Using medications off-label and requiring additional prescriptions. A senior may state that a pain medication has been lost or stolen in an effort to get more.
- Newly developed depression or a lack of interest in regular activities. While loss of ability can lead to a lack of interest in participating in activities, so can substance abuse.
- Frequent trips to medical providers complaining of pain that does not have an identifiable source.
- Chronic use of sleep aids or tranquilizers.
- Getting intoxicated despite serious prescription medication warnings.
- Confusion or memory loss that comes and goes with no clear reason why.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. reports that trouble coping with changes, children moving out, and no longer having a job are significant factors that can result in addictive behavior in seniors. Memory loss, confusion, depression and mood changes can all be signs that an addiction is active. For seniors, the same symptoms that can indicate an alcohol or drug addiction can also indicate an early development of dementia or other cognitive issues.
Why Drug or Alcohol Addiction Is Often Misdiagnosed in Seniors
Drug or alcohol addiction is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms look like other health conditions one would expect to see in a senior. In addition, seniors are less likely to report significant alcohol consumption or to admit to abusing illegal substances. Although “6-11% of elderly hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems”, it can be difficult to pinpoint which cases these are. Seniors who go to the doctor frequently for complaints that have no identifiable cause should be screened for alcohol or drug addiction, yet not many are. Lack of training in the signs of addiction in seniors will lead many health care providers to diagnose issues with dementia, memory loss, diabetes, or depression without getting to the root cause that is addiction.
When a Senior Needs Addiction Treatment
There are times when a senior is going to need addiction treatment in order to stop abusing substances. The goal for anyone struggling with addiction is the same, to stop relying on drugs or alcohol to begin living a healthier life. The treatment should be empathetic, with a clear message that addiction can be treated no matter the age of the person.
Some treatment providers don’t focus on addiction with seniors with the thought that it’s too late for treatment or it is not worth treating seniors for addiction. This is not fair for seniors who have an addiction that can be treated, as the quality of life for them can greatly improve. It doesn’t matter how much time a person may have left, as the quality of life should matter the most.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “While substance abuse in older adults often goes unrecognized and therefore untreated, research indicates that currently available addiction treatment programs can be as effective for them as younger adults.” It is important not to minimize the effects of substance abuse on the overall wellness of an individual, no matter what age they are. Treatment for addiction in seniors is both effective and important, giving seniors a better chance at living a healthy life.
How Treatment is Provided for Senior Substance Abuse
Any senior who comes forward wanting help for an addiction should be treated with empathy and respect. The communication should be clear and look at the variety of issues a senior may regularly face. It is when you take into consideration the way in which you communicate with an elderly individual and how you present topics, that treatment will be a different.
It is important to rule out any medical causes of the symptoms that are present. Substance abuse may not be the answer to a senior’s complaints of pain, confusion or depression. The loss of a spouse, job, or no longer being able to drive can all lead a one down a path of depression that is not caused by substance abuse. Careful evaluation is necessary to rule out underlying health problems in conjunction with screening for substance abuse issues.
Like anyone who is struggling with an addiction, seniors will benefit from a supportive atmosphere. When clients are able to talk about their struggles with addiction openly in a professional, empathetic atmosphere, true recovery can occur. It isn’t easy to admit you struggle with an addiction, but the help you find at a professional treatment center is worth taking the risk. Through peer support and learning relapse prevention strategies, seniors can withdraw safely from substances and move forward in their lives in a healthier way. Education around safe practices is important for anyone who needs help with addiction, but particularly true for seniors who may need a number of prescription medications to control health conditions.
When seniors learn about the effects drugs or alcohol are having on their cognition or physical abilities, they are better able to make sound decisions around drug or alcohol use. Some seniors start drinking “to take the edge off” without realizing their behavior is out of their control. Education can go a long way in helping a senior who has an addiction better understand what is going on with their health when they abuse substances.
Treatment Begins with Supervised Detox
The first step in any recovery program for seniors is to detox safely from the drugs or alcohol. This can be more complicated for seniors, who are overall less healthy than younger people and more susceptible to harsh symptoms of withdrawal. While people of any age experience withdrawal symptoms, the effects can be more detrimental for a senior who is trying to withdraw from substances.
After detox, it’s important to continue working on the emotional and behavioral pieces of addiction to gain a better handle on sobriety as a whole. A senior may be surprised to learn that they have an addiction and may not have realized the danger they were putting themselves in by mixing certain medications with alcohol.
Treatment providers are not always clear with seniors regarding medications and alcohol consumption. The thought that it’s too late for help is prevalent among treatment for seniors and is not the best way to manage addiction.
Medication interactions with both alcohol and illegal substances are a common reason for emergency room visits, especially for those who take more than one type of medication. Individual therapy is always recommended for anyone who struggles with addiction. Therapy provides seniors with a person to talk to who is going to have a neutral position when it comes to their substance use issues.
While a senior may have trouble talking to a family member or friend about their addiction, a therapist is easier to talk to. Seniors need to have a safe person to talk to when it comes to an addiction and treatment.
The treatment involves working closely with a counselor, attending group sessions, and learning about the effects that drugs or alcohol can have on the mind and body. Through a careful look at personal habits and attitudes, it is possible to recover from addiction no matter what age an individual is.