Wake Up to the Signs of Senior Substance Abuse by Sally Phillips

Substance abuse is often thought of as an issue affecting the young, yet statistics show that around 17 percent of seniors in the U.S. misuse alcohol and prescription drugs and that this percentage is set to double by 2020, largely because of the increase in the number of older adults. In this post, we look into the causes and signs of senior substance abuse, suggesting ways to address it.

What is the Cause of Senior Substance Abuse?

Pinpointing an exact cause for senior substance abuse is impossible, since there can be genetic, environmental, socioeconomic and lifestyle circumstances at play. Sometimes seniors develop dependency even after using a medication precisely the way their physician prescribed it. Risk factors include illness (which can lead to a reliance on pain medication), mental conditions such as anxiety and depression, and loneliness. As seniors age and their peers begin to pass away, it can be very difficult to find the motivation to lead a healthy life. Confusion regarding which medications to take (and possible interactions between drugs) can also lead to the misuse of prescribed medications.

Mistaken Diagnoses

It is said that the signs of senior substance abuse are “under-recognized, under-diagnosed, misdiagnosed and under-treated.” When a patient is elderly, doctors can mistakenly diagnose them with dementia/Alzheimer’s or depression, yet although substance abuse can co-exist with other mental conditions, it is important to obtain separate diagnoses so that each condition can be addressed. Families and health professionals should also be aware that the elderly can sometimes be reticent to seek help – either because they fear being diagnosed with a problem, or because they are ashamed of being judged or stigmatized. Efforts should also be made to help seniors feel that help is at hand in emergency situations or loneliness.

Signs of Substance Abuse

The effects of substance abuse in seniors are serious; they include an increased risk for falls, hip fractures, decreased level of bone density, etc. It is important to be vigilant for signs such as:

  • Increased rate of falls
  • Changed eating habits
  • Reduced social contact
  • Grooming/hygiene issues
  • Altered sleeping habits
  • Unexplained long-term pain
  • Lack of motivation to take part in usual activities
  • Mood swings

Diagnosis and Treatment

The Center for Substance Abuse and Treatment recommends that all persons aged 60 and over be screened for substance and alcohol abuse. Treatment can range from cognitive behavioral therapy, to medical treatment, and inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Seniors should be treated by their primary care physicians or by specialists in the field, and have improved access to therapy in the centers in which they tend to congregate. Improved coordination between mental health, substance abuse and senior patient services is also a matter of importance, as is public awareness regarding this hidden dilemma.

***By Sally Phillips, Freelance Writer