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Substance Abuse in the Elderly: An Overlooked Epidemic

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Substance Abuse in the Elderly: An Overlooked Epidemic

When people think of substance abuse, they normally think of teens and young adults.

The truth is: addiction can happen to anyone at any age.

In fact, the elderly are perhaps even more vulnerable to substance abuse due to a variety of risk factors and environmental conditions.

As the older community grows in the United States at an unprecedented rate, it's important to understand the signs of addiction in the elderly.

How Common is Substance Abuse in the Elderly?

The United States Census Bureau expects the older adult population to nearly double between now and 2050. This means that adults over 65 will make up about 20 percent of total population.

These individuals bring with them a variety of conditions and concerns including substance abuse.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 1 million adults 65 and older struggled with a substance abuse disorder in 2014, and SAMHSA expects the number of older adults facing addiction to increase roughly 3 percent by 2020.

That means over one million older adults face medical conditions, family problems, financial trouble, and legal issues due to substance abuse disorders. As the elderly population increases in the coming years, this trend won't likely slow down.

Elderly Addiction to Painkillers and Alcohol

Alcohol use among the elderly is remarkably commonplace.

Over 16 million older adults report drinking alcohol at some point within the last month. A drink every now and then isn't a huge concern, but over 4 million older adults admit to either binge drinking or heavy alcohol use. More than 6 million elderly people claim to drink on any average day.

Alcohol is the most commonly misused drug among the elderly, but prescription painkillers are likely a close second – it's kind of hard to tell for sure.

It isn't easy to track prescription drug abuse because they're prescribed by a doctor under medical supervision. Privacy laws keep medical and pharmaceutical history confidential.

However, this doesn't mean it's impossible to determine a vague statistic.

According to a Medicare study, about 15% of older adults receive an opioid prescription following any type of hospitalization. Nearly half of that number still filed opioid claims 90 days after discharge.

It's also not uncommon for doctors to prescribe benzodiazepines – drugs with a high potential for abuse – to the elderly for anxiety or stress

This doesn't technically mean that everyone is addicted, but it's surely a staggering statistic.

Know the Signs and Risk Factors of Elderly Drug Addiction

Substance Abuse in the Elderly: An Overlooked Epidemic

Older adults may be more reluctant to admit when casual alcohol consumption or prescription drug use has turned into a problem.

This is due to a few reasons. Perhaps they still believe the stigma associated with addiction in the elderly or they simply don't understand what qualifies as an addiction.

Either way, it's important for caregivers, family members, and loved ones to understand the risk factors and symptoms of elderly drug addiction.

Risk factors for substance abuse in the elderly may include:

  • Hospitalization for an injury or surgery
  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, or arthritis
  • Previous history of substance abuse
  • Untreated or undiagnosed mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or anxiety
  • Major life changes such as moving to an assisted living facility or death of a loved one

Likewise, you'll also want to keep an eye on signs and symptoms. It's important to speak up if you notice a loved one might be facing addiction in the elderly.

  • Filling prescriptions at multiple pharmacies
  • Visiting different doctors for the same condition (often indicates receiving the same prescription from multiple doctors)
  • Running out of medication faster than expected or prescribed
  • Leaving gatherings to drink more at home
  • Running out of money
  • Making up excuses to take more of their medication or increase their dosage
  • Withdrawing from social activities or isolating themselves
  • Become defensive when you ask about their drinking or prescription usage
  • Fearful of leaving the home without extra medication Irritability or aggressiveness when they don't take their medication
  • Hide prescription drugs around the home or in their bag
  • Frequently talk about the benefits of a prescription drug or alcohol
  • Become nauseous or vomit due to withdrawal from prescription opioids

Alcohol abuse is much easier to identify than prescription substance abuse in the elderly. Many older adults change their behavior due to a number of reasons – it doesn't necessarily indicate an addiction or problem.

However, it's still important to keep careful watch on your family and loved ones.

Treatment Options for Addiction in the Elderly

Substance Abuse in the Elderly: An Overlooked Epidemic

If you suspect a family member or loved one is facing elderly addiction to painkillers, alcohol, or other drugs, it's important to speak up.

Make sure to begin the conversation from a point of support and reassurance. Don't be angry or imply guilt: addiction is a disease no matter the age.

Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena understands that addiction in the elderly requires a comprehensive approach. Older adults have unique needs and face substance abuse in a different way.

A treatment plan for substance abuse in the elderly could include a variety of treatments and techniques including:

  • Chemical detoxification
  • Drug-free or non-opioid pain solutions
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Support groups
  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Problem solving and relaxation techniques

Las Encinas Mental Health Hospital and Recovery Center

Substance Abuse in the Elderly: An Overlooked Epidemic

At Las Encinas Hospital, we understand that substance abuse in the elderly requires a comprehensive group effort from family and the community. Our treatment programs seek to break chemical dependence and deliver continued rehabilitation.

We understand that every person is unique so each recovery program is personalized for individual needs and dependency issues. A treatment plan may include a variety of therapies and methods including lab tests and psychiatric evaluations, living skills, relaxation techniques, family therapy, and post-discharge planning.

If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction in the elderly, Las Encinas Hospital is here to help. Contact us or call 24/7 at 877-579-8140 for a confidential and free assessment.