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Overview of Elderly Drug & Alcohol Addiction

Humans and mind-altering substances have a rather lengthy history extending back thousands and thousands of years. However, in recent decades, addiction has gone from being a cultural blemish to a serious epidemic of catastrophic proportions. As it’s become an increasingly greater threat, we’ve learned that addiction is not just a behavior, but rather an actual brain disease. And while we often think of diseases having very specific causes and attacking limited demographics, addiction is a disease that can occur in many different ways regardless of where one exists on the demographic spectrum. In fact, although many people associate substance abuse with youths and young adults, there are actually many elderly individuals and senior citizens who are suffering from addiction, and that’s what we’re going to be discussing below.

>33% Of the outpatient prescription market are persons aged 65 and older
~50% Of nursing home patients struggle with alcoholism
2.5 Million older adults have drug or alcohol problems

Elderly substance abuse is very poorly understood by the general population. For this reason, we’re going to be discussing addiction among the elderly. In particular, we’re going to gauge just how severe a problem that elderly substance abuse and addiction is today, citing specific figures and specifics to put elderly addiction into perspective. We will also identify the factors that contribute to late-age addiction, distinguish between the two main types of elderly substance abuse, and explore the reasons why it’s notoriously difficult to diagnose addiction among the elderly. For good measure, we will finally learn some of the specific effects that will occur among senior citizens who have developed substance abuse problems.

Is Addiction a Major Problem in the Elderly Community?

Since the mid- to late-twentieth century, the term “baby boomers” has been frequently discussed with regard to the numerous individuals alive today who were born in the aftermath of the Second World War. Since the birth of these so-called Boomers, they have had a major influence on the demography of the United States, first skewing the average American age younger before reaching middle and, finally, late age, resulting in the rather sizeable population of elderly individuals and senior citizens that we have today. In fact, statistics show that there is a higher percentage of seniors today than at any other point in U.S. history. Therefore, many of the issues Americans face today occur to more seniors than we might initially think simply because of the fact that there are so many of them.

Most Common Substances Abused By The Elderly

Not only are there more seniors now than ever, but the ratio of seniors to non-senior Americans is shows an increasing discrepancy as the number of seniors continues to grow year over year. This is an extremely important consideration because addiction is not something that most people would readily associate with seniors and the elderly; however, addiction has been found to be a major problem among Americans of advanced age, and it’s not merely because of the sheer number of seniors alive in the U.S. today. There have been numerous investigations conducted for the purposes of looking at substance abuse among those of late age and the results show much higher rates of addiction than one would expect.

Rates of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Among Seniors

Again, alcohol and drug abuse aren’t behaviors that many of us would attribute to the elderly population, but statistics don’t lie. The studies that have recently been conducted paint a pretty vivid portrait of the state of substance abuse in the elderly community. For instance, there are currently over two million seniors suffering from some form of alcohol or drug abuse in the U.S. with relatively few of these individuals receiving any sort of treatment. By all indications, many of these addicted seniors are in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which could be a statement on the quality of life at these facilities or a lack of oversight that protects residents from these types of issues.

Of all demographic groups in the U.S., alcoholism is highest among widowers over the age of 75.

One study analyzed rates of emergency room admissions among the elderly and found something quite startling: Up to 11 percent of all emergency room admissions among the elderly are the result of alcohol or drug abuse. In other studies, it was found that substance abuse among the elderly has consistently been one of the fastest-growing public health concerns in the U.S. Unfortunately, awareness of this growing problem has been decidedly inadequate. Similarly, there have been very few efforts made to curb this rising threat, which means that rates of elderly addiction will continue to escalate until the sources of this issue have been addressed.

What Factors Have Contributed to Addiction Among the Elderly?

When we look at rates of substance abuse, we often must consider the factors that cause or contribute to the development of alcoholism and drug addiction. For instance, substance abuse among youths most often occurs due to social or environmental factors; either they are in peer groups that consist of other substance abusers or they are frequently exposed to environments where substance abuse is common and possibly even encouraged. However, the factors resulting in elderly substance abuse and addiction are quite different than those for other demographic groups.

First, depression has been found to be one of the most problematic factors that leads to late-age substance abuse and addiction. In effect, this refers to the deep sadness that many senior citizens will experience late in their lives due to the various types of loss that inevitably occurs. Specifically, depression often results from the loss of spouses, family members, close friends, and other loved ones. This loss often causes seniors to become fearful and depressed about their own impending mortality. As well, it’s known that people lose their physical and mental health as they age, which means that they’re often not able to do many of the things they used to do as they get to more advanced ages. This is another major source of depression.

Second, pain is another major contributor to substance abuse problems in the elderly. As we mentioned above, advanced age comes at the loss of one’s physical and mental health, often entailing specific health conditions that might cause chronic pain. A very common example is arthritis, which hinders a person’s physical abilities. The experience of pain can cause seniors to become desperate for relief, turning to substance abuse as a means of self-medicating for their pain. Alternately, they might received addictive pharmaceuticals to treat their pain and become addicted inadvertently, which is another cause for elderly substance abuse: Access to addictive substances. Although physicians want the elderly to have a fair quality of life, the fact that elderly aren’t often considered to be at high risk of substance abuse problems has made it quite easy for them to receive prescriptions for substances that are highly addictive. Therefore, part of the elderly addiction problem is the result of the ease of access many seniors have to addictive substances.

Finally, boredom can be a major factor. Unable to do many of the things they once did and with their families growing up and moving away, many elderly individuals find that they don’t have many ways to occupy their time. When you combine this with the ease of access to alcohol and addictive pharmaceuticals, addiction can occur after seniors become substance abusers due to boredom.

Rates of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Among Seniors

The elderly community, though still part of the entire demographic spectrum, differs from other demographic groups in certain ways that make it necessary to consider this group’s needs separately in many instances. Specifically, the concept of time and the length of time that one has lived makes it necessary to view addiction differently from youths, young adults, adults, and the middle-aged. When you consider age and the length of time one has been alive as a variable, the elderly can be one of two different types of addict: the survivor or the late-onset addict.

The ‘survivor’ addict is an elderly individual who developed a substance abuse problem much earlier in his or her life and was somehow able to remain in active addiction from the point of the initial substance abuse into late age. In other words, the ‘survivor’ addict has been a substance abuser for a significant portion of his or her life. For such an elderly addict, it’s expected that there would be lasting health repercussions that developed as a result of such long-term substance abuse, even exacerbating the deterioration in physical and mental health one experiences as a normal part of the aging process. The second type of addict — the ‘late-onset addict’ — is a bit more self-explanatory; this is someone who didn’t become a substance abuser until much later in his or her life and who hasn’t been in active addiction for very long. Late-onset addiction most often occurs as a result of some type of major life change, which can be the death of an important loved one, retirement, the development of a debilitating health problem, immense lifelong disappointment, sudden financial hardship, loss of independence, and so on. It’s important to understand which type of addict a senior citizen appears to be because this is immensely helpful when it comes to developing a treatment plan for the individual.

In both cases, remember that elderly addiction is a treatable affliction. Even if the senior citizen is a long-term substance abuser, the various inpatient resources that exist would be extremely helpful in helping the individual get sober and in minimizing any additional health deterioration that would occur due to a substance abuse problem.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, at least 50 percent of all seniors living in assisted living homes have problems with alcohol.

It’s proven rather difficult to diagnose addition among the elderly for a couple key reasons, most of which pertain to the fact that many of the diagnostic markers of a substance abuse problem are intended to be used among youths and adults rather than the elderly. Although seniors exhibit signs of substance abuse problems, they’re not usually as apparent or easily observable as in individuals of other demographics. They’re also quite likely to try to keep their substance abuse a secret at all costs, particularly due to embarrassment.

However, there are a number of signs that can indicate elderly addiction. For instance, many elderly addicts will withdraw from their family and friends, having very little social life. They may also exhibit sudden or uncharacteristically clumsy behavior, oftentimes with bruises and other injuries that occur from falling. There’s typically major changes in mood and demeanor, a lack of appetite, and they will also seem to have changes in their appearance, typically by taking less care in their appearance.

  • It’s estimated that at least 2.5 million seniors suffer from substance abuse problems.
  • Senior citizens are hospitalized as often for substance abuse as they are for heart attacks.