Do you know an older person who is having problems remembering things or having difficulty with their balance? What is the first thing you think? “Oh, it’s normal at their age,” or “I hope they aren’t getting Alzheimer’s.” Would the possibility of substance abuse or addiction ever come to your mind?
Most people think of addiction as affecting younger adults. It is difficult to believe that an elderly loved one may struggle with a substance use disorder. However, substance use disorders among people aged 60 and older are one of the most rapidly increasing health problems in the United States.
Older Adults and Addiction
As the number of senior citizens with substance use disorders continues to rise, it is difficult to know how many older adults suffer from addiction. Many seniors go undiagnosed or unidentified because some older adults feel shame regarding their use of drugs or alcohol, while others regard it as a personal matter and are reluctant to let anyone know. Sometimes, adult children or other relatives may be aware of the situation but choose to ignore it.
Additional reasons that addiction goes undiagnosed in older adults include:
- Signs of drug and alcohol use, such as diminished cognitive skills, fatigue, and balance problems are often similar to those of other health problems of that age group, such as dementia, depression, anxiety, or diabetes.
- Most older adults use drugs or drink alcohol at home rather than in public places. They may not live near family or friends or have anyone involved in their everyday life.
- Older adults may not go to work or do other things that would be affected by their drug or alcohol use.
- Family members may justify their loved one’s substance use by saying that, because of their age, the individual should be allowed to do what they enjoy.
- Many older adults have health conditions and take multiple medications, which can cover up the signs of addiction.
- Many healthcare professionals do not screen older adults for substance use.
Substance Use and the Baby Boomer Generation
According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), substance abuse affects approximately 17 percent of senior citizens. Over the next 20 years, the older population will continue to grow as Baby Boomers, born between 1946 to 1964, reach retirement age. Researchers believe that during that time, the number of older adults with substance use disorder will double.
Illicit drug use by older Baby Boomers may be attributed to three factors:
- Cultural: The era when Baby Boomers grew up was a time when drug use was popular, and drugs were easily available.
- Emotional: Older Baby Boomers may turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with loss and grief such as divorce, death of a spouse, loss of income, or the ending of their career.
- Economic: Baby Boomers often worry about outliving their retirement savings and job security.
Baby Boomers always had higher rates of drug and alcohol use than younger generations, and many of them continue to use substances recreationally or as a way to cope with getting older.
Two Classifications of Older Adults with Substance Use Disorders
Older adults with drug or alcohol addictions can be placed into two categories: hardy survivors and late-onset users.
- A hardy survivor has reached the age of 65 and has been drinking heavily or abusing drugs for many years. Usually, a hardy survivor has experienced severe negative consequences because of their addiction. They may have experienced difficulties in their relationships, had legal or financial problems, or had physical or mental health issues.
- A late-onset user is an older adult who forms an addiction after retirement or later in life. Often, they lose control of their substance use due to health-related issues, a catastrophic life event, or several major life changes occurring quickly.
More men are hardy survivors, and more women are late-onset users.
Signs of Addiction in Older Adults
Being aware of the signs of addiction in older adults can help you identify a problem in the early stages. The person may exhibit loss of coordination beyond what is considered normal with age. They may seem unusually confused and show significant changes in their sleep patterns. Weight loss, loss of appetite, and mood swings are common.
You may witness a change in their personality. They may seem unusually depressed, irritable, or anxious, and they may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. They may grow increasingly isolated and distant from family and friends.
Do Not Struggle Alone
Regardless of age, it is never too late to get help. The caring, professional staff at Anabranch Recovery Center, located in Terre Haute, Indiana, will answer your questions and guide you or your loved one along the path to recovery.
About the Author:
Terry Hurley is a retired educational professional and freelance writer with more than fifty years of experience. A former reading specialist and learning center director, Terry loved her years working with children in the educational field. She has written extensively for print and online publications specializing in education and health issues. For the last six years, her writing focus has been on addiction and mental health issues.