Though addiction is rarely the first issue that comes to mind when thinking about problems with aging, it is becoming increasingly prevalent for those 65 and over. Understanding the risks and signs of addiction can help a loved one get the treatment they need.
The process of aging creates noticeable changes in our bodies, minds and moods. These changes can be slow and subtle, or profound depending on one’s overall health. The expectation that things will be different as someone gets older often is often accompanied by thoughts of conditions commonly associated with aging – physical ailments as well as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or depression.
However, many people overlook the possibility of substance abuse in elderly people, often attributing potential alcohol or drug-related problems like memory loss, depression, irritability, and confusion to other conditions. Understanding substance abuse in older people is critical in accessing the right kind of treatment and potentially dramatically improving the life of a loved one.
The Reality of Addiction and Older Adults
Even though addiction isn’t always on the radar when you notice some changes in an older loved one, baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are at the greatest risk for substance misuse among the elderly population. Studies in the US have shown that this is one of the fastest growing health problems for adults 65 and over, and UK statistics revealed a 20% increase in the number of people over 65 drinking above recommended limits over the last decade. As populations age, it is expected that these numbers will continue to go up.
The risks posed by substance misuse are significant and can reduce quality of life at any age, but carries additional weight in an aging body, which cannot break down drugs and alcohol as easily as it did in the past. Additionally, the common use of prescription medication among this age group heightens the potential for dangerous interactions between substances.
Covid-19 and the Need for Extra Attention to Older People in Our Lives
The dangers of substance misuse increase particularly when people are isolated and not in regular contact with friends or family. For some, aging means a diminishing social circle and far-flung relatives who may not see the changes brought on by an addiction. The Covid-19 pandemic has also created additional stress and isolation for many, but especially for older people who tend to be more vulnerable to serious complications brought on by the infection. This stress, coupled with mandatory isolation, can be a catalyst for both new and old addictions.
The lockdown restrictions in place to keep people safe from the virus also intensify isolation, especially for older people. It is important to make time to check in regularly with older loved ones in order to combat the effects of isolation and monitor mental health during this time. When you talk to a loved one, take note of how they sound. Do they seem depressed or confused? If possible, video chats can help get a better sense of how people are moving, responding, and taking care of themselves. If you are noticing that someone you love isn’t acting like they normally do, it is important to follow up to get a better sense of what is going on.
New Problems or Old Habits?
Substance abuse in older adults can be roughly split into two groups; those who have developed an addiction later in life, and those who have a long history of misuse.
Sources of a new addiction
For those newly addicted, substance misuse such as an increase in alcohol intake may be preceded by a significant life change. This could be an injury or illness that causes chronic pain or discomfort, the death of a loved one, or isolation. Entering retirement can also be a precursor for addiction if people find themselves bored or without a sense of purpose.
In other cases, medications prescribed for aches and pains or sleep troubles can become habit-forming, particularly if someone is juggling multiple medications, or is not keeping track of how much they are taking. Accidentally upping the dosage on certain prescriptions, such as opioids, can increase the risk of addiction.
Long standing compulsive behaviour
In those with a history of substance abuse, the symptoms of intoxication and withdrawal may look different with age, as the body loses the ability to efficiently process alcohol or drugs. For example, while the levels of someone’s drinking may stay relatively the same, the apparent impacts on their judgement, speech, movement, thought processes and overall physical health may be significantly different.
Symptoms of Substance Abuse in Older Adults
Symptoms of alcohol and substance abuse in older adults may present differently than in other age groups, making them more likely to be overlooked or confused with other conditions. Symptoms can include:
- Trouble remembering things after having a drink or taking medication
- Unsteadiness or falls
- Changes in eating habits
- Unexplained bruises
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased isolation from family and friends
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Neglect of personal hygiene
- Unexplained chronic pain or discomfort
- Depression and irritability
If you are noticing these symptoms in someone you love, it is important to take steps towards treatment to avoid long-term health impacts.
Next Steps in Tackling an Addiction in Older Adults
Many older adults will attempt to hide their addiction, and are more likely to not seek professional help. This is where family and friends can play an important role in encouraging a loved one to improve their health and quality of life by seeking treatment. Intervening privately, and with a few close family or friends, can help communicate concern without being overwhelming or embarrassing. Talking to a loved one about being honest with their doctor about what substances they are using, and in what amounts, will help their doctor understand what is going on and assess which symptoms may be substance-related.
Identifying the right kind of treatment is also essential. Specialists who have experience in treating addiction in older adults will best know how to navigate addiction as it occurs within the aging process. This can include building coping mechanisms for dealing with loss and depression, reviewing existing medications, and rebuilding a supportive social network.
Recovering from Addiction in a Supportive Community at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in Thailand, is a uniquely designed rehabilitation and wellness facility that fosters growth and healing for people who want to change their lives for the better and overcome addiction. Located in safe, sunny Thailand, The Dawn provides a respite from the stresses of home, and 24 hour connectivity through phone and email to loved ones.
Licensed by the Thai Ministry of Health, The Dawn offers customised programmes that cater to each individual’s specific needs by using a comprehensive, holistic treatment method and modern techniques with proven results. Our highly-experienced team of addiction and mental health professionals, including a 24-hour onsite nursing team, work to ensure that each client receives the ideal balance between rehabilitation, wellness, relaxation and therapeutic engagement.
It’s not too late to help someone rediscover joy and health in their life. Call The Dawn today to learn more about our programmes.