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The Hidden Problem of Older Adult Substance Abuse

As we age we are faced with changes in nearly every facet of life, and many of those changes are not welcome. The increasing years bring increasing physical limitations and identity changes. Retirement can mean the loss of daily purpose and a lessened sense of identity that most of us gain from our role in the workplace. Children grow up and move away. Friends die and precious spouses are lost. Loneliness, anxiety and depression are common problems for the aged, and an alarming number of seniors turn to alcohol or prescription drugs in order to cope. Substance abuse among those over age 60 is one of our country’s fastest growing public health concerns.

Sadly, although the problem is widespread, it garners little public attention and is rarely addressed by the medical community. There are several reasons why this is the case:

1. The symptoms of alcohol or drug abuse can be easily mistaken for signs of dementia or other age-related health problems. Doctors often don’t diagnose substance abuse in seniors because they’re looking for other medical issues instead.

2. The adult children of seniors may live far enough away that they don’t see what’s happening. If they do happen to live near enough to comprehend the situation, adult children may simply choose to ignore the problem. Shame or concern that the problem will make demands on them can drive this willful ignorance.

3. Because older adults often have fewer social outlets and not as many personal interactions, it’s easy to hide their alcohol or drug problem. There are no officemates, social groups or spouses to see the signs of addiction.

The substance older adults are most likely to abuse is alcohol. Treatment centers report that four of every five seniors who seek help are there because of trouble with alcohol use.

Whether through the loss of a spouse or the social isolation that comes from leaving the workplace, older adults can feel terribly and painfully alone. To numb the pain of loneliness they turn to alcohol. But when the few friends and family who remain witness the increase in drinking they often choose to keep their distance. This, of course, leads to further isolation and more drinking.

Experts say that three or more drinks per day or seven drinks per week qualifies as heavy drinking. Unfortunately, reports show that nine percent of those receiving Medicare benefits have an average of four drinks per occasion and often have more than 30 drinks per month.

The news is not much better when it comes to prescription drugs. Because seniors are dealing with more health complications than younger people, they are the largest consumers of over-the-counter and prescription medications in the nation.

Whether it is alcohol or prescription drugs, older bodies are not able to metabolize the substances as efficiently as they once did. This means that the amount of alcohol consumed safely in youth can be more dangerous in older age. The same goes for medications, prescription and over-the-counter. In fact, makers of some non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs – Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Aspirin) are planning to change dosing recommendation for older consumers. Older people don’t need the same amount of medication as younger people and new labels will reflect varying dosages accordingly.

The problem of seniors who are taking multiple prescription drugs and who also drink alcohol is not small. Many seniors whose minds would be in fine condition otherwise, are struggling with confusion, poor coordination and other health complications not because they are old, but because they are misusing substances or are dangerously combining medication and alcohol.

The problem of substance abuse among older adults is under-recognized and therefore under-served. Soon there will be more seniors in the nation than ever. We need to be ready to see the problem and then to lovingly address it. It can’t remain hidden much longer.

Posted in Senior Issues

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