Asana Recovery

Substance Abuse in the Elderly

substance abuse in the elderly

Of the approximate 55 million older adults in the US, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) nearly 1 million adults over the age of 65 live with a substance use disorder (SUD). Unfortunately the issue may go unnoticed or the signs may be disguised as symptoms related to aging. Substance abuse among older adults has been called an “invisible epidemic” and the signs and symptoms of abuse can vary from how it presents in younger people with SUD. Thus, it is important to recognize some of the risk factors for substance abuse in the elderly and also be able to identify signs of substance abuse. Sometimes being aware of unusual behavior in your loved one is the first step in realizing a problem and getting your loved one help.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse in the Elderly

While substance abuse is often thought of as a problem that primarily afflicts younger people, research has shown that SUD rates are expected to rise exponentially for people older than 50 years old. As people age, they are often confronted with different circumstances and must face physical, mental, and social changes. These changes can create a sense of isolation and loneliness, as people may lose more loved ones as they age, and may also have dramatic changes to their own health and financial situations. A person is also more likely to have other age related illnesses, many of which can be exacerbated by frequent alcohol or substance use. Older adults also tend to metabolize substances more slowly and their brains can be more sensitive to drugs. 

The elderly population faces the same risk factors as their younger counterparts, including a lack of a support system, family instability, grief, trauma, co-existing illnesses, isolation. However some other risk factors may happen more frequently as a person ages and may also face unique risk factors such as:

  • Major changes in living arrangements and loss of independence
  • Loss of job or financial independence 
  • Chronic illnesses
  • Chronic pain
  • Retirement (voluntary or unexpected)
  • Physical changes and disabilities
  • Multiple prescriptions and over the counter medications
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Depression and other mental health conditions
  • History of substance use disorder

This population may also struggle with overcoming the stereotypes and stigmas associated with substance use disorder. They may believe that they are “too old” to have a problem with drugs or alcohol, especially if they had been able to drink regularly before or manage their medications previously without problems. Unfortunately this stereotyping and ageism serve as barriers to identifying the substance use problems. 

Additionally, one of the fastest growing problems facing seniors is the combination of alcohol with prescribed and over-the-counter drugs. People 65 and older consume more prescribed and OTC medications than any other age group with approximately 20% of the drugs being prescribed being benzodiazepines. 

The National Institute on Aging suggests that seniors who are struggling with alcohol abuse to remove alcohol from their home, not to drink on an empty stomach, to avoid drinking as a coping mechanism and to avoid other people who drink a lot.

Signs of Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Family members and even health care providers may confuse symptoms of substance use with other symptoms associated with aging which include chronic health conditions or reactions to other life altering events such as loss of a spouse, friend or child. Additionally, once a person retires, problem drinking or substance use does not interfere with a job, and the increased alone time can make it easier to hide substance use. In some cases, people may notice it, but think that at their age, they should be allowed to enjoy indulging themselves.

Signs of substance abuse are the same as that in the younger population, however some additional warning signs include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Unexplained injuries and bruises (likely resulting from falls)
  • Memory loss or confusion
  • Issues with sleeping
  • Increased anxiety and signs of depression
  • Anhedonia or Loss of interest in things that the person once enjoyed
  • Poor hygiene or changes in personal grooming habits
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Changes to eating habits
  • Changes to body odor
  • Chronic pain with no identifiable cause
  • Drinking and using drugs in secret
  • Hoarding medications
  • Increased mood swings
  • Drinking while on medications

Addiction Treatment in Orange County

If you feel like someone you love may be struggling with an alcohol or drug abuse issue, regardless of age, it is important to provide emotional support. When helping an elderly family member it is important to also encourage and assist the senior family member to access appropriate information and resources. You may offer to drive them to meetings, attend meetings with them, or help them seek the help of therapists or treatment. 
If you suspect someone may have a problem with substance or alcohol use or you are concerned about your own substance or alcohol use, Asana Recovery can help. Contact Asana Recovery or give us a call today at 949-763-3440.Our trained professionals will walk you through the admissions process and make sure all of your questions are answered. The first step is admitting you need help, and is often the hardest. Once you take that first step, there will be a team on your side to help you be successful in your new future.