According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people in the United States aged 65 or older will almost double in the next few decades. In 2012, there were about 43 million senior citizens. By 2050, projections show an elderly population of almost 84 million. This aging of the country’s population has many implications. For example, Social Security and Medicare will likely be affected.
Additionally, an increasing number of seniors will be affected by addiction. A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Survey from 2018 shows that nearly 1 million people over 65 admitted to substance abuse in the prior year. This works out to 2% of all senior citizens. The most common substance to be abused was alcohol. Just over 10% of those over 65 had at least one episode of binge drinking in the month before the survey, and 2.5% admitted that they had used alcohol heavily while 1.6% reported having an alcohol use disorder. Meanwhile, 1.3% had misused opioids.
What Causes Substance Use Issues Among the Elderly?
A study exploring the link between substance abuse and retirement is discussed in Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic. In the study, the authors looked at those age 50 and above, specifically at those in this bracket who were eligible to retire. Some of these workers had retired while others chose to defer retirement.
The study found that many older adults were not prepared to deal with the changes brought about by aging and particularly by retiring from the workforce. They faced a vacuum in their lives after leaving their jobs. The worst-case scenario occurred when people took early retirement even though they loved their jobs. Often, they did this out of fear as they worried that their companies were facing financial troubles. This was the group that suffered the highest level of substance abuse.
Other studies point to a connection between grief and addiction. As people age, they will experience the death of loved ones. This is a natural part of life, but many people are not prepared for it. Not everyone has the coping mechanisms they need to process feelings of loss, and drugs and alcohol are often used to numb pain.
Finally, another area that impacts the elderly is an addiction to prescribed pain killers. Because people are more likely to experience ill health as they age and therefore experience chronic pain or need surgery, it is more likely for older people to be prescribed medication for pain relief. Many of these substances are highly addictive. The worst offenders are opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. While these powerful drugs are sometimes needed to combat pain, they can lead to substance use issues, so patients must proceed with caution when using them for pain relief.
In fact, “The Psychiatric Times” estimates that close to 11% of elderly patients may abuse their prescriptions. “Today’s Geriatric Medicine” noted that this age bracket is three times more likely to be prescribed medication, and “The New York Times” wrote in 2010 that between 6 and 8 million seniors in America dealt with substance use or mental health disorders.
How to Intervene If You Suspect Drug or Alcohol Abuse
In many cases, individuals suffering from a drug or alcohol problem do not realize they need help, so loved ones may want to intervene. A drug or alcohol intervention is a meeting that is carefully choreographed. Often, loved ones and family members ask for the intercession of a trained professional to help ease the process.
The goal of this meeting is to help the subject see the need for help. One hoped-for result is that they will enter a treatment program. While interventions can occur for any age group, there are issues specific to interventions among the elderly. Often, the people staging the intervention are the adult children of the addicted individual. This can create complications due to parent-child dynamics.
For example, respectful children may be reluctant to confront a parent. Or, if the addiction has been a long-standing one, then there may be an erosion of trust. Emotional ties between family members may have eroded, and parents may lash out due to feelings of shame or guilt.
Finally, family members need to make sure that behavioral changes are being caused by substance abuse and not due to other issues. In many cases, adult children of those with an addiction may only interact with their parents sporadically, so this becomes harder for them. The need to be able to differentiate between issues caused by addiction versus issues that are due to the natural aging process makes it even more important to involve professionals.
Due to the consequences of this aging process, it is important to ensure that interventions for the elderly are done with care. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services suggests that only one or two loved ones be involved to reduce the chances of confusing or emotionally overwhelming the person. The tone should be kept positive and hopeful.
Signs of Substance Abuse in the Elderly
Social isolation can make it harder to identify substance abuse in those over 65. These individuals are likely to be retired, so they are no longer professionally connected, and their social circles are often smaller as well. In many cases, they don’t live with or close to family members.
Children may note that, for example, their parent has always had wine with dinner and never suffered ill effects. Yet what they may not realize is that one consequence of aging is a change in the way the body handles drugs and alcohol. Because the metabolism slows down, someone who used to be able to handle a certain amount of liquor may not be able to do so any longer. Additionally, the signs of addiction may mimic the symptoms of conditions associated with aging, which makes diagnosis tricky.
It’s critical for senior citizens who suffer from addictions to be diagnosed and provided with treatment. Drug or alcohol abuse may exacerbate the problems associated with aging. For example, a senior dealing with alcoholism may be more likely to fall and break bones. Addicted individuals are also likely to have memory loss. They are more likely to deal with complications due to negative drug interactions as well.
What are some things friends and family members can look for to identify whether a senior is dealing with substance abuse? The smell of alcohol is a given, but there are many others.
One indicator is a sudden change in mood. Another is a sudden change in hygiene. Examples of these types of changes include a normally cheerful person suddenly becoming morose, a normally social person becoming a loner or a neat and tidy housekeeper suddenly having a slovenly home.
Other signs that may point to addiction include excessive sleepiness. If a loved one falls asleep during conversation, for example, or is sleeping far more than normal, he or she might have a substance use disorder. Finally, concerns should be raised if a senior citizen is constantly losing a prescription or finding more than one doctor to fill the same one.
What Types of Treatment Options Are Available?
Due to the expansion of this demographic, more facilities are providing care targeted toward seniors struggling with addiction. While a senior citizen can join a general program that works with all ages, he or she may prefer one that is focused on the elderly.
Undergoing treatment with a group of peers has many benefits. There is a shared life experience among this cohort, and they face similar challenges. However, the treatment itself will depend on what is needed.
Some people dealing with substance abuse can manage at home as long as there are supports in place such as a local 12-step group or counseling services. Others require residential treatment as they need the structure and discipline as well as the oversight. Some people need a medically supervised detox before they can begin any sort of treatment.
While working to remain sober, it’s often helpful if the person can participate in educational workshops. For people who need residential programs, it is crucial that once they are discharged, there are support services available.
NFA Behavioral Health
NFA Behavioral Health is a facility in New England that can help seniors overcome their addictions and find hope and peace.
It is located in the beautiful rolling hills of Canterbury, New Hampshire. Thanks to the 17 acres of private woods that surround the facility, New Freedom Academy provides a secluded and picturesque setting for those enrolled in its residential program.
Our facility has just 20 beds and a low client-to-clinician ratio. This provides an intimate and personal setting for clients.
NFA Behavioral Health offers the following:
- Medically supervised and assisted treatment
- Psychotherapeutic support that includes both individual and group therapy
- Treatment for co-occurring mental disorders
- Motivational interviewing
- Grief and loss therapy
- Gender-separate accommodations
- Access to weekly off-site Family Recovery Workshops
- 24/7 on-site medical staff
- Nutritious, chef-prepared meals
- Physical exercise such as aerobics and yoga
- Workshops and educational programs
- A serene and secluded location
- Social activities such as paintball, bowling and mini-golf outings
As evidenced by these many features, New Freedom Academy takes a holistic approach to recovery. Our staff recognizes that there are many components to healing. An addicted individual needs to detox and have assistance when working through physical withdrawal. The root causes of his or her addiction must be addressed as well to prevent relapse.
Particularly in the case of the elderly, there are many specific areas to be targeted. For example, grief and loss counseling can help elderly clients who have lost loved ones.
Numerous studies have shown that physical exercise results in improved mental and emotional health among the elderly as well as an increase in psychological and social well-being and cognitive function. Yet many seniors do not participate in even moderate levels of activity. By encouraging clients to exercise with the guidance and supervision of trained staff, they can feel a sense of accomplishment while remaining safe from injury.
Educational workshops supplement both group and individual sessions. They provide clients with an understanding of the physical and psychological roots of addiction.
The approach at our facility is focused on giving clients hope and the chance of a better life – not just free of drugs and alcohol but also filled with new purpose and meaning. Even after a patient leaves the facility, ongoing support is provided to help him or her achieve a full life free of substance abuse.