Aging and Addiction to Medication, Alcohol or Drugs

Drug and alcohol dependency in the older population is a challenge that does not yet receive the attention it deserves. Substance abuse in senior adults is reaching epidemic proportions. According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, 90 percent of elderly people in the United States take at least one prescription medication, and one-third take five or more, including addictive medicines such as benzodiazepines and opiates. Alcoholism is also a serious problem with the older population, many become addicted in later life.

Addiction in the 60plus age group is often misdiagnosed because medical providers attribute presenting symptoms to age-related mental or physical problems, and they are often reluctant to talk to older patients about substance abuse. Older people are less likely to seek help and they’re usually very good at hiding their addiction. When addiction occurs late in life, it is often associated with issues of grief, loss, and a sense of having lost one's purpose in life. Some are isolated and lonely, and many experience a loss of meaning and connections after retirement.

Families and spouses are often hesitant to bring up the issues of addiction to their older loved ones, who they may believe are too stubborn or too old to change. Members of the older generation tend to often view addiction as a sign of weakness or lack of character. However, there is substantial evidence that recovery is possible for older adults, and that treatment is just as effective as it is for younger people and it might extend life expectancy for many years. When left untreated, Elders are more prone to a number of adverse effects, including memory loss, falls, broken bones, car accidents, mental and emotional problems and suicide. Dangerous interactions are a risk for people who are prescribed numerous medications, and problems are compounded for people who combine prescription medications with alcohol.

Sometimes an observant and caring physician is the best person to bring up the subject of addiction. Otherwise it is usually left to the family. Addiction professionals recommend that the subject of addiction should be approached gently but directly; with no blaming, criticism or name-calling, and only when the person is sober. A trained interventionist is often extremely helpful in such a situation as he or she can help facilitate a “tender loving care” approach, making clear to the addicted older person that his or her role as a grandparent and role-model for the younger generation is sorely needed.

There is still a lack of meaningful research regarding aging and addiction, and as of yet, there are few age-specific guidelines for diagnosing and treating older people with addictions. However, a quality treatment center should be carefully chosen by it’s ability to provide age-appropriate treatment conducted at a suitable pace and intensity. Family members across generations, spouses or partners should also be involved. A strong medical component in treatment needs to be provided in order to influence the overall health of the client for the better.

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