Addiction in Older Adults
Some Dramatic Statistics
- There are 2.5 million older adults with an alcohol or drug problem
- Six to eleven percent of elderly hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems — 14percent of elderly emergency room admissions, and 20 percent of elderly psychiatric hospital admissions.
- Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.
- Nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol related problems.
- Older adults are hospitalized as often for alcoholic related problems as for heart attacks.
- Nearly 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are prescribed for older adults each year. Benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizing drug, are the most commonly misused and abused prescription medications.
Why do older adults often not get the treatment they need?
- Alcohol and drug abuse is often difficult to detect in older persons — mistaking symptoms for signs of aging. Physicians receive very little education on substance dependence and misdiagnosis is frequent. Never had a problem before — but perhaps the pain of losing loved ones initiates use.
- Addicted elderly are often isolated from loved ones — they may hide their use — or it is perceived to be "one of their few pleasures in life" or symptoms are mistaken for aging.
- Often there are multiple health care providers and multiple medications — difficult to see the addiction.
Why does alcohol and drug addiction often arise later in life?
- Alcohol and drug use can temporarily numb feelings of loss, isolation and lost purpose or meaning in life.
- Drinking can fill the many idle hours.
- Alcohol or drugs replace the love, concern, and emotional nurturing that are a part of intimacy that is no longer available.
Symptoms of Chemical Dependence
- Occasional slurred speech
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Unkempt appearance reflecting poor personal hygiene
- Increased complaints of insomnia
- Frequent health complaints without evidence of medical problems
- Lying about drinking habits
- Increased frequency of drinking
- Irritability and mood instability when not drinking
- Unexplained bruises and repeated falls
- Black outs
- Signs of withdrawal — such as tremors — when not drinking
- Increased forgetfulness
- Social withdrawal
- Depression, anxiety and mental health problems
- Hiding alcohol or pills
- Discomfort when confronted about drinking or drug use behaviors
How Can You Help?
Clinical research shows that older adults with late onset addiction respond just as well to treatment as do younger patients.
Concerned family members must proactively sit down with the older adult suspected of alcohol or drug abuse to assess current situation. It is important to be gentle, but also to be direct and specific.
Avoid being judgmental. They may be defensive, make excuses and tell you it’s not your business…but that’s just another manipulative behavior associated with addiction. If possible, communicate your concerns with their physician. They are often unaware of addictive behavior or multiple medications from different physicians.
If a problem is identified, appropriate treatment should be sought. Older addicted adults often have special treatment needs so professionals should be consulted.