Seniors may not be commonly thought of as drug addicts, but people over the age of 60 are actually one of the fastest-growing groups of substance abusers. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 15 to 20 percent of seniors are currently thought to abuse alcohol or prescription drugs. Heroin use is also on the rise among seniors, likely as an outgrowth of opioid pain pill abuse.
Though seniors are at substantial risk for substance abuse, they are one of the groups that least frequently gets the treatment they need when a problem develops. Overlap in symptoms with prescription medications or medical conditions is a problem, as are the conditions seniors often live in. Seniors are also sometimes prescribed new medications that were not tested on older populations, so effects on people in their age group and contraindications with medications they normally take are not well documented.
Seniors who are aware they have a problem are often too ashamed to seek help on their own. Families also often unwittingly enable the problem by dismissing it as an eccentricity or one of the few regular pleasures left to the senior. The substance abuse is frequently not a “pleasure,” however, but a means of self-medicating or masking other symptoms.
Identifying drug abuse in seniors presents a unique challenge, as seniors frequently take prescription medications that can produce similar signs and symptoms even when they are being used according to doctor’s orders. They may also be suffering from age-related disorders or health conditions whose symptoms can have overlap with those of substance abuse. Senior addiction treatment must address the needs and health of patients and should provide a comforting environment that is free of judgement.
Diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s or dementia all have symptoms that overlap with those of substance abuse. Prescription drugs for these conditions often add another layer of overlap. It may be impossible for family members or people close to the senior to discern that they have a substance abuse problem. Common signs of substance abuse among seniors include memory loss, loss of coordination or motor skills, loss of appetite, depression and poor hygiene — all things that can also come from a number of natural age-related conditions.
Because it can be so difficult to discern symptoms of substance abuse in seniors, it is very important for family members who care for the senior to involve a trained medical professional and keep in close contact with them. A doctor who knows the senior’s medical history and is familiar with their prescription medications has the best chance of noticing substance abuse if the senior is going out of their way to hide it.
Seniors face unique physical and mental age-related challenges in terms of addiction. They also have unique social circumstances that can increase their risk of substance abuse.
Seniors face an uphill battle in getting treatment as there is sometimes a perception that they do not have much time left and treatment resources could be better used on younger people. This is a callous attitude that understandably drives seniors further into depression when they encounter it, which in turn is likely to fuel self-medication.
Even if seniors have adequate and caring medical treatment available to them, they often face challenging social circumstances such as long periods of isolation, feelings of low self-esteem and boredom. Seniors need an environment that is both supportive of recovery and stimulating to provide them with motivation to complete recovery tasks.
Grief is often a significant contributor to substance abuse in seniors as well. Seniors may be in a position where they have lost their spouse and most or all of their friends, a level of grief that younger people often cannot understand. This is complicated by a lack of family support, financial hardships or a sense of disappointment in how their life turned out.
Specialized addiction treatment centers for seniors have staff that are well-trained in both the physical and mental health issues that seniors commonly experience. These centers also feature programs that help seniors to socialize and build new contacts, reducing their sense of isolation and boosting their self-esteem.
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