Valley Behavioral HealthValley Behavioral Health

by Dr. Todd Thatcher, DO, CMO

A photo of an elderly woman facing addiction.
 

Drug and alcohol addiction are most common in young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. However, addiction can occur at any age and is becoming more and more prevalent among the elderly, or those at age 65 and older. In fact, it’s estimated that approximately 17% of this age group are suffering from some type of substance abuse, with the actual number of cases presumed to be much higher. Due to common physical changes during this life stage, addiction is easy to miss and difficult to diagnose in senior adults. Proper attention to surrounding circumstances and symptoms can help you identify this problem in a loved one and get them the help they need to recover.

 

Addiction Among the Elderly

In general, there are two main categories when it comes to the elderly and addiction. It’s the ones who struggle with drug and/or alcohol abuse. Some have survived into their senior adult years after prolonged addiction. Others develop the habit as a result of major adjustments or chronic conditions later in life. Regardless of which category your loved one falls into, it’s important to seek help and treatment right away.

Senior adults often experience significant life changes that can be difficult to cope with. These can lead to loneliness, depression or a feeling of insignificance or displacement. Some common causes include:

  • Chronic or serious illness
  • Retirement
  • The death of a spouse or peer
  • Loss of independence
  • Financial changes or struggles
  • Isolation
  • Moving to a new home or care facility
  • Physical and mental deterioration
  • Overall lifestyle changes

Such events can worsen or initiate a drug or alcohol addiction, so it’s critical to be wary of changes in behavior or mood if and when these situations do take place. In addition, be on the lookout for the signs of addiction among the elderly. These may seem like normal signs of old age, but usually point to a more serious problem.

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Trouble eating or new unhealthy eating habits
  • Disinterest in normal routine or pursuits
  • Changes in sleep patterns or habits
  • An increased desire to be left alone
  • Frequent pain
  • Sadness and irritability
  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Losing touch with friends and family
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

Have your loved one evaluated by a physician or specialist to rule out an underlying condition. If no other diagnosis is reached, you may be dealing with substance abuse.

What Drug is Most Commonly Abused by Older Adults?

Research has shown that the most common types of substances abused by the elderly are alcohol, sedatives and opioid pain killers. The most frequently prescribed sedatives include benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium or Ativan and Z-drugs, such as Ambien or Lunesta. Codeine, Fentanyl, Hydrocodone and Oxycodone are opioids that may be prescribed for chronic or severe pain. It’s important to monitor the dosage and consumption of these drugs closely and to use a system to keep all medications safely organized. Also, alcohol consumption should be limited to one serving a day and eliminated altogether when taking certain medications. In addition to these legal substances, heroin is the most common illegal drug abused by senior adults. These substances can have a much more severe effect on elderly people, which can be significantly harmful to their health.

A photo of an elderly man facing addiction.

Substance Use Treatment for the Elderly

Once an addiction problem has been suspected or identified in your loved one, seek evaluation and treatment right away. There are many recovery options for the elderly, including individual and group therapy and medical intervention. Some people may be more successful when the entire immediate family is involved in counseling and caregiving in regards to substance abuse. In some cases, cognitive or behavioral therapy can help overcome addictive behaviors and lead to successful recovery.

It’s important to seek care that is designed for this specific age group. Older adults have a unique set of needs and perspective on life that can impact how well they respond to certain treatment environments. Substance abuse treatment programs that are created specifically for the elderly help ensure connection to their peers, practical applications to their stage of life and resource materials that are easier to access, read and use.

How to Help Elderly With Drug Addiction

You will likely need to become more involved in your loved one’s life in order to help them stick to their rehabilitation program. Provide transportation to and from any meetings or treatment sessions and offer to stay with them if they desire your presence. A specialist may recommend this in any case and will likely wish to meet with you on a regular basis. You will need to monitor their drug or alcohol consumption closely. Be sure to follow a medical professional’s instructions, as withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly difficult for the elderly. In some situations, constant supervision may be necessary for a time in order to ensure your loved one’s safety.

In addition to practical assistance, emotional support is extremely important for older adults with substance abuse problems. Since the root of the issue is often situational, be sure to communicate openly and encourage them to report any emotions they are struggling with. It can be helpful to reintroduce a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, so help them find a fulfilling activity or hobby that they can enjoy. Help them schedule visits with friends and family on a regular basis to maintain their important personal connections with others.

If you have an older loved one who may be suffering from addiction, the time to act is now. While their symptoms may appear to be normal for their age and stage of life, unidentified addiction can have traumatic consequences. Fortunately, with the right timely support, your elderly friend or family member can experience recovery and still live a healthy and fulfilling life in their old age. Feel free to request more information from a Valley specialist today.

Dr. Thatcher
About Dr. Thatcher
Dr. Todd Thatcher has worked at Valley for 8 years and has been the Chief Medical Officer for 5 years. He is triple board certified in forensic psychiatry, general psychiatry, and addiction medicine. Currently, Dr. Thatcher is passionate about high quality training of our employees and generating and tracking as much clinical data as possible to improve processes and procedures for increased ease, accessibility, and ultimately to better serve our clients and provide the best care possible.