Thanks to science and advances in modern medicine people are enjoying longer lives than ever before. Unfortunately many members of the senior population are turning to drugs and alcohol and this life-threatening problem is reaching epidemic proportions across much of the world. In the United States it is estimated that 17 percent of all people over age 60 are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. The problem is expected to skyrocket as more Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 enter their senior years.
If you suspect an older parent or loved one is abusing drugs or alcohol don't assume that he is beyond hope or too old to change. Often seniors understand the impact that drugs or alcohol on their lives and many realize to their chagrin that their metabolism has slowed and amounts they could easily tolerate at a younger age now have a frightening impact. Your older friend or family member may be more receptive to help than you think.
Ignoring the problem won't make it disappear and the support of friends and family is critical. Although treatment may take longer senior adults actually have a very high recovery rate - as high as or even higher than any other age group.
Signs of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Older Population
It isn’t always easy to determine if an older person has a drug or alcohol problem or if shaky hands balance problems or forgetfulness are just normal signs of aging. Many older people drink at home which means their alcohol use is hidden especially if they live alone. However there are signs to be aware of.
An older person with a substance abuse problem may:
- Lose interest in activities normally found pleasurable,
- Ignore warnings on medicine bottles not to use medications with alcohol,
- Have problems with unbalanced gait tipsiness or slurred speech,
- Become secretive and sneaky about disposal of large numbers of beer wine or whiskey bottles,
- Use mouthwash mints or gum to disguise alcohol on their breath,
- Display unexplained mood changes may become hostile irritable depressed withdrawn anxious sullen or easily stressednbsp
- Attempt to hide unexplained bumps and bruises,
- Use poor personal hygiene,
- Have difficulty concentrating,
- Become increasingly isolated from friends and family,
- Incur unexplained financial problems,
- Make excuses when questioned about drug and alcohol abuse blaming a little too much celebrating or a case of the flu,
- Go “doctor shopping” for more prescriptions,
- Become annoyed when a ritualistic drink with dinner or nightcap before bed is interrupted.
How to Approach an Older Loved One
If you determine that an older person may be abusing drugs or alcohol it can be difficult to know what to say. Don’t wait as quitting will improve physical and emotional health and lengthen their lifespan. Substance abuse can exacerbate symptoms of many illnesses including diabetes heart disease and high blood pressure. Don’t fall into the “ageism trap” where older people are considered to be ok when drunk because “why shouldn’t they have their pleasure if there is little left in their lives to enjoy”. Nothing could be further from the truth addiction affects anyone irrespective of their age tremendously.
Be gentle but direct when broaching the subject of substance abuse. Avoid confrontation and don’t feel you have to address the problem all at once. Depending on your loved one’s physical and mental condition and willingness to talk about her substance use it may be best to break the discussion into short conversations. Don’t continue if emotions are high or if your loved one indicates she is stressed or uncomfortable.
Avoid words such as “drunk,” “alcoholic,” or “drug addict,” which may drive your loved one further into isolation or cause him to shut down entirely. Remember that your older family member grew up in a time when drug and alcohol abuse carried a tremendous stigma. Addiction was considered a shameful thing ndash not a treatable disease that can happen to anybody. Don’t be surprised if he is embarrassed or ashamed.
Remind your older loved one gently how the problem is affecting friends and family including children and grandchildren. However be supportive and make sure she feels cared for. Assure her that she won’t be alone.
Don’t worry about being perfect when approaching a loved one about his substance abuse. However always be respectful and if possible loving.
Treating Substance Abuse in the Older Population
Consider speaking to your loved one’s medical provider about her substance abuse. However keep in mind that because the older don’t often fit the usual pattern of substance abuse and addiction medical professionals often overlook the symptoms. As a result physicians may be more willing to prescribe medications that can prolong the addiction.
Never encourage a loved one to quit drugs or alcohol “cold turkey.” Withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous and older people are at higher risk of seizures and elevated blood pressure. Your parent or family member may need drug and alcohol treatment or rehab which can be a very positive experience. Seniors often benefit from treatment in numerous ways ndash enjoying improvements in memory and concentration becoming more independent and re-developing valuable social connections and finding new ones.