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Addiction Among the Elderly on Rise, Overlooked

Addiction Among the Elderly on Rise, OverlookedAddiction is an equal opportunity problem. While we may think the elderly aren’t of particular concern when it comes to alcoholism, use of illicit substances or prescription drug abuse, data increasingly show that rates of addiction among the elderly are increasing. Stories like that of Slyvia Dobrow, a great-grandmother whose alcohol addiction spiraled out of control, drive the point home: if we’re going to tackle addiction in society, we can’t forget about the seniors. Learning more about the problem among the elderly and why it’s on the rise helps you understand the growing issue and what can be done about it.

Older Adults and Addiction – the Statistics

A study published in the journal Addiction aimed to estimate the number of adults aged 50 and over with substance abuse disorder, and how that number is likely to change by 2020. The researchers found that between 2002 and 2006, the annual average number of older adults with substance abuse issues was 2.8 million, and based on projected population data, this was expected to increase to 5.7 million by 2020. In 1992, 102,700 people in this age group looked for substance abuse treatment, but by 2008 this figure had more than doubled to 231,200. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance among older adults, but the rates of illicit drug use have also been increasing, rising from 2.7 percent of those aged 50 to 64 in 2002 to 6 percent in 2013.

Sylvia Dobrow’s Story

Sylvia Dobrow said that she once “drank like a lady.” She’d match the ideal wine to her sandwiches, but this level of refinement didn’t last long. Before she knew it, she was drinking around the clock, switching to vodka and skim milk, and found herself hiding her drinking from her grandchildren. Soon, Ms. Dobrow lost her job due to her alcohol consumption and, in her own words, “lost my identity.” It wasn’t until she fell out of bed after a particularly heavy night of binging that her daughters realized their then-73-year-old mother was having serious problems.

They took her to a California-based rehab center that specifically caters to over 55s, where she stayed for a month before leaving and continuing with a 12-step program. She hasn’t had a drink since, and her recovery had such an impact that she went back into education, earning a qualification in substance abuse counseling. She now works part time at the same rehab center that helped her get better, counseling older adults going through the same problem she did. She commented, “These last seven and a half years have been the most fulfilling of my life, because I can help people.”

The Role of Retirement in Addiction

In order to try to understand the issue of addiction among the elderly, two researchers conducted a study looking into the role retirement plays in the likelihood of developing addiction. They found that the retirement itself wasn’t particularly relevant to the chance of developing addiction, with the data instead suggesting that “the conditions leading to retirement, and the economic and social nature of the retirement itself, [has] a far greater impact on substance use than simple retirement itself,” according to study author Peter Bamberger.

Retirement often means loneliness, depression, divorce, the death of a spouse and many other situations – such as a move to a smaller, less active residence – that can lead people to turn to drugs or alcohol. And when they do drink, they’re more affected by it than they were in their youth, because tolerance to alcohol decreases as we get older. As well as using substances to cope with emotional hardship, according to substance abuse counselor Steven Wollman, “For anyone who’s an addict, boredom’s the No. 1 trigger,” an issue that clearly impacts older adults after retirement.

Identifying Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Although the elderly often visit the doctor more frequently than younger adults, it isn’t easy to identify an issue with addiction among them. Physicians aren’t usually trained to talk to older patients about the possibility of addiction, and time constraints often mean they’d have problems getting the opportunity to conduct screenings even if they tried. The problems run a bit deeper than this, too, because many of the symptoms of substance abuse – such as memory loss and disorientation – look a lot like the ordinary symptoms of aging. Doctors could easily mistake signs of alcoholism or prescription drug abuse for signs of dementia, for example, or consequences of a pre-existing health problem. All of these things combine to mean that the problem is under-recognized and under-treated.

Helping Elderly Adults Struggling With Addiction

There are many approaches to helping elderly adults, and ultimately these all revolve around getting more of them into treatment. One issue with the identification of elderly addicts is that adult relatives often miss the problem, and the individuals themselves often don’t come forward and tell somebody (whether due to shame or an inability to recognize their own addiction). In short, we need to stay vigilant, and both ordinary Americans and physicians need to drop any preconceptions they may hold about the likelihood of older adults struggling with addiction.

Posted on December 9th, 2014
Posted in Senior Issues

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