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Addiction and the Elderly: Why Drug and Alcohol Abuse is on the Rise

elderly addiction

It’s no secret that binge drinking is a cultural problem in the U.S. and around the world. The behavior is primarily associated with young people, but increasingly, senior citizens are drinking alcohol excessively. In fact, a 2019 study found that more than 10% of Americans aged 65 and over engage in binge drinking on a regular basis.

Binge drinking is defined as the act of consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a single session. It’s important to note that binge drinking doesn’t necessarily equate to alcoholism. But both types of excessive drinking can cause a number of health problems, which are often compounded within already frail elderly populations.

Alcohol isn’t the only culprit when it comes to substance abuse among the elderly, however. Senior populations are also prone to the misuse of prescription medications, especially opiates. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) reports that 1 in 5 seniors filled at least one opioid prescription in 2015 and 2016. That number isn’t suspect in and of itself, as opioids are commonly prescribed for pain management. But when coupled with the fact that, in 2015, almost 125,000 hospitalizations among elderly Americans were opioid-related, a troubling pattern begins to emerge.

So what can caregivers, healthcare providers, and concerned family members do to help seniors struggling with addiction? Recognizing the signs of addiction is the first step, and then possibly staging an intervention to address the issue.

Further, a growing number of medical professionals are advocating for alternative pain management techniques to replace addictive opioids. To many, medication should be used as a support rather than a crutch, and opiates tend to compound problems rather than relieve them. It may be beneficial to pass on that strong message to seniors in your life who are living with substance abuse.

Recognizing Unhealthy Behavior and Patterns

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to recognize the signs of addiction. No matter how close you are to a loved one with a substance abuse problem, you may be effectively in the dark, unable to see the true scope of the problem. That’s because addicts, as a whole, are typically extremely skilled at covering up their use and addictive behavior.

Hidden addictions are especially problematic among older adults, as the health risks are considerable. Studies show that blood alcohol levels rise more quickly in older drinkers, and aging brains are more sensitive to the sedative effects of alcohol. There’s also major health complications to consider, such as liver failure and stroke.

Even if they are fully aware of the negative repercussions of substance abuse disorders, it can be extremely difficult for elderly addicts to break their behavior patterns. And if your aging parent is struggling with recovery, you may be enabling him or her without even knowing it. Enabling is a form of codependency that can be detrimental to those attempting to recover from substance abuse. Look out for so-called “unhealthy helping and giving” behavior, which can include paying court costs for addicted loved ones, as well as making excuses for their behavior or overlooking violated agreements and boundaries.

Understanding the Addict’s Brain

The majority of elderly adults who imbibe alcoholic beverages and/or take prescription medications don’t overdo it. Those individuals only take medication as prescribed, and are able to stop after a few drinks. But addicts unfortunately don’t have an “off switch.” And for many, the use of illicit substances and/or alcohol serves as a means of coping with mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety.

In order to help reduce addiction numbers among the elderly, it’s imperative that assisted living facilities offer alternative coping methods. Stress and anxiety can be effectively managed without the use of drugs and alcohol. According to Invigor Medical, healthy stress management alternatives include breathing exercises, regular physical activity, and the practice of mindfulness.

Keep in mind that all forms of stress management and anxiety relief are highly individualized. What works for one person may be completely ineffective to another. Patience and trial-and-error are imperative tools when you’re working with seniors who have a substance abuse disorder, especially when that addiction co-occurs with a mental illness.

Helping Seniors Who are Struggling with Addiction

Whether you’re a caregiver or family member, there are a number of ways to help seniors who are struggling with addiction. Along with identifying and curbing your own enabling behavior while also providing alternative pain relief and stress management tools, counseling may also be a viable option.

The counselor’s role in addiction recovery is multi-faceted, and starts with establishing patient trust. That trust typically takes time to develop, but building what is known as a therapeutic alliance is essential to the recovery process. No matter their age, addicted patients must feel comfortable speaking freely during treatment sessions.

Once a therapeutic alliance is established, addicts can then work with their counselor to identify the root cause of their addiction and develop a relapse prevention plan. There are a number of relapse prevention techniques that elderly addicts may find beneficial, from recovery groups and meetings to taking on new hobbies or activities.

Final Thoughts

Substance abuse among the elderly is one of the fastest growing health problems in the United States. The good news is that there are myriad options for seniors who hope to break free from addiction. Finding alternative pain management techniques, establishing a relapse prevention plan, and leaning on family members, caregivers, and/or counselors for support are key tips to living a sober life at any age.



About the Author: Ainsley Lawrence is a writer who loves to talk about good health, balanced life, and better living through technology. She is frequently lost in a good book or podcast. Her life goal is to find the most delicious mac n’ cheese in every town she visits.

Image Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/pFS8jgu8-ag

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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