Unfortunately, the elderly are one of the most neglected population. Aging can be tough on not only the person who is getting older, but their families as well. Older people can suffer from not only declining physical health, but poor mental health as well as the effects of aging on the brain can be severe. Add substance abuse and addiction into the mix, and you have one of the most vulnerable populations. However, if you take the time to become aware of the signs and symptoms of addiction in your aging family members, you can nip the issue in the bud before it does too much damage. We’re here to help, so keep reading to find out more.

How prevalent is substance abuse in the elderly community?

In a report from the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (SAMHSA), it was found that more than 1 million individuals over the age of 65 struggled with a substance abuse disorder in 2014 — 978,000 with an alcohol use disorder, and 161,000 with an illicit drug use disorder. And in the same report, they predicted that illicit drug use among adults aged 50 or above is projected to increase from 2.2 percent to 3.1 percent between 2001 and 2020, taking the number from 2.8 million in 2002–2006 to 5.7 million by 2020.

Why are elderly people at risk for developing an addiction?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 80 percent of older patients (ages 57 to 85 years) take at least one prescription medication every day, and more than 50 percent take more than five medications or supplements on a daily basis. This increase in dependency on prescriptions and pills leaves them extremely susceptible to developing unhealthy dependencies.

In addition, one of the most prevalent issues within the elderly population is isolation and loneliness, which often leads to depression. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 50 percent of nursing home residents have no close relatives, and 46 percent have no living children. It is also estimated that over 60 percent of nursing home residents never get visitors. Aside from depression and anxiety, elderly people may suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, and these diseases can wreak havoc on the brain. While depression can lead to abuse of medications as a coping mechanism, poor brain functioning can also cause older people to unintentionally overdose on medication if unsupervised.

The elderly are also more prone to physical illness and injury, and may often be prescribed opioid painkillers for pain management. However, benzodiazepines, used to treat anxiety, pain or insomnia, are some of the most dangerous prescription drugs for seniors. These are generously prescribed to this population and highly addictive. The rate of senior citizens addicted to benzos is on a steady increase.

Signs that an aging loved one may be struggling with addiction

So you may have been concerned for some time that someone you love and care about may be developing an unhealthy relationship or dependence on a substance, bordering on or blossoming into full-on addiction. How can you tell? This list from Addiction Campuses may be helpful in figuring out if someone you know is suffering silently:

  • alienating loved ones, solitary behaviors and social isolation
  • the body, breath or clothing carry a strange odor
  • changes in eating habits
  • changes in sleeping habits
  • confusion
  • chronic pain with no discernible cause
  • health complaints with no discernible cause
  • unexplained nausea or vomiting
  • depression
  • deteriorating personal grooming habits
  • drinking or using drugs in secret
  • drinking even when medications or doctors caution against it
  • extreme fatigue
  • hoarding medications
  • memory loss
  • mood swings
  • poor coordination or loss of balance
  • the pupils of the eye are unusually large or small
  • bloodshot eyes
  • ritual use of drugs or alcohol
  • slurred speech

The difficulties in diagnosing elderly patients with Substance Abuse Disorder

Sometimes, it can be difficult to properly diagnose an elderly person with Substance Abuse Disorder, because the symptoms of the disorder can be mimicked in the natural process of aging as well as any other undiagnosed mental illnesses under the surface. Things like memory loss, extreme fatigue, mood swings, poor coordination, etc can all be symptoms of substance abuse… or just the simple fact that the person is aging, and these things are to be expected. This is why it’s important that you keep an eye on your elderly family members. Take extra care to monitor their habits, and make note if anything changes in their mental clarity, patterns of behavior, speech, etc. The reason so many elderly people suffer for so long without help is because they are often unable to verbalize how they are feeling, or they may have embarrassment over their physical, mental, and emotional struggles. And because they are one of the most neglected populations, it can be even more difficult to notice when something is amiss.

In The New York Times article, A Rising Tide of Substance Abuse, author Richard A. Friedman, M.D. recounted an incident shared by a colleage: “Not long ago, a medical colleague referred a 67-year-old woman to me with mild depression, weakness and complaints of short-term memory loss. Her physician told her there was no clear medical explanation for her symptoms, given that her physical exam, exhaustive lab tests and brain M.R.I. were all normal… The problem, I soon discovered, was that her alcohol consumption had tripled since the death of her husband a year earlier. She did disclose to her internist that she drank but minimized the amount. She had turned to alcohol, self-medicating her grief, but it only worsened her mood and impaired her memory, typical of alcohol’s effects on the brain.” This is just one of the many cases of symptoms of substance abuse disorder being masked by typical signs of aging. It is imperative that the elderly have advocates on their side to help fight for proper diagnoses.

What can be done?

Getting help can be difficult, for anyone, but especially the elderly. They may be reluctant to leave their families or even confused and afraid. But with some positive encouragement from loved ones, treatment can really make the golden years of their life some of the best. Treatments should address all of the person’s needs, and should take into account any physical health and medical conditions, co-occurring disorders, nutrition deficits, or lack of support systems. Here at Scottsdale Recovery Center we take a holistic approach when treating elderly patients, and our goal is to provide sensitive, compassionate care for one of society’s most deserving population.

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