Over the past decade, certain types of substance use disorders have affected more elderly Americans than ever before. In particular, opioid and marijuana abuse among the elderly has steadily expanded. If you or a loved one are struggling, it’s important to find a treatment program that addresses age-specific concerns.
Why Is the Problem Growing?
One reason that substance use disorder (SUD) among the elderly is growing is simple arithmetic. As the Baby Boomer generation advances in age, so does the elderly demographic. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Americans 62 and older grew by nearly 9 million and increased from 14% of the population to 21%.
Judging by the current population trends, experts predict that the elderly population in the U.S. will almost double from about 52 million in 2018 to around 95 million in 2060, reaching a high of 23% of the overall population. With the increase in this age demographic, a growing need for medical treatment, including addiction therapy, will also grow.
However, there’s more to substance use disorder among the elderly than math. This age group shares a distinct set of issues that makes them more vulnerable to alcohol, opioid and marijuana abuse than other generations.
For example, although people are living longer — more than 10 years longer than their counterparts in 1950 — they are working longer too. More of the elderly live alone, due in part to rising rates of divorce. More than a fourth of women ages 65 to 74 were living alone as of 2018. The stress of working into retirement years and the loneliness of single life are just two of many reasons why people over 62 are turning to alcohol, opioids and other mood-altering substances. Poverty, ill-health and depression are also major contributing factors.
In addition, the Baby Boom generation grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when illicit drug use was relatively common among teens and college-age adults. Drugs and alcohol use have always been a hallmark of the generation, and that has not changed as Baby Boomers have approached old age.
Although alcohol remains the most abused substance among the elderly, Americans in this age bracket are now using more drugs than any similarly aged population worldwide. Cannabis is the substance of choice for drug users. Misuse of prescription medications as well as illegal drugs is also part of the equation.
What Are the Primary Risk Factors in Elder Substance Use Disorder?
Some of the factors that contribute to elderly substance use disorder include:
• Chronic pain
• Disabilities that reduce mobility
• Transitioning to new home environments
• Failing health
• Chronic illness
• History of alcohol abuse
• History of substance use disorder
• Concurrent substance use disorder
• Mental health problems
• Social isolation
Senior citizens who take several prescriptions daily have a higher risk for addiction.
How Does SUD Affect Elderly Health?
As you age, physical and psychological changes are likely to affect your general health. You’re not as resilient as a 30-year-old. This means you won’t bounce back as quickly after a lost weekend. In fact, the damage your substance of choice does to your older body and mind is more likely to be permanent and debilitating.
The typical toll of chronic substance use on older individuals becomes magnified by pre-existing conditions such as:
• Heart disease
• High blood pressure
• Respiratory illness
• Eating disorders
• Kidney disease
If you’re getting older, you’ll be more sensitive to medications, including illicit drugs. Your metabolism will be slower than it was when you were in your 20s. Therefore, what you put into your system stays there longer, increasing the chances of brain, organ and other tissue damage.
Loss of muscle mass and a reduction in total water content in the body occur with age. As a result, seniors abusing alcohol are more sensitive to its effects. The substance will not disburse as quickly due to less water content, so it remains more concentrated and more damaging.
Also, if you have joint ailments or are recovering from surgery, you probably have prescriptions for pain medications. If you have insomnia, you likely have a prescription for benzodiazepines. Doctors frequently prescribe these strong, addictive drugs for elderly health issues. Unfortunately, this opens the door for misuse and possible drug dependency.
If you’re taking drugs to help you sleep, you’re raising your risk for cognitive decline and depression. Meanwhile, pain medications can affect your breathing, concentration and balance, putting you at greater risk for slip-and-fall injuries.
Physicians and caregivers can reduce the possibility of opioid and benzodiazepine misuse in elderly patients by adopting some preventive practices:
• Routine screening for prescription drug misuse during elderly checkups
• Provide counseling resources for patients who are at risk
• Investigate escalating refill requests and intervene if necessary
• Prescribe with caution
• Monitor patient’s treatment/pain management program
According to health advocates, more research into elderly substance use disorder would be immensely helpful. Once the medical community understands the factors that fuel the rise of elderly addiction, it will be better equipped to address them.
Why Is Elderly SUD Not Talked About?
When you grow older, you are likely a parent, grandparent or trusted friend rather than somebody’s child. That means people expect you to take care of yourself. When you’re struggling with substance use disorder, those around you often fail to recognize what you are going through. They might chalk up your odd behavior to depression or even dementia.
One of the reasons people don’t really discuss elderly SUD is that most of the research on substance use disorder focuses on a younger demographic. Federal drug programs support this trend. Information is scarce regarding the best treatment practices for SUD in the elderly.
Also, many symptoms that go hand-in-hand with getting older are easy to confuse with signs of addiction. For example, if you lose your balance, people will blame it on your age rather than drug impairment.
If you’re over the age of 62 and in need of therapy for drug or alcohol issues, you might have difficulty finding help. You could find that medical professionals, social workers and elder care facilities ignore the problem. They may simply not be aware of how rapidly SUD in older people is growing.
Some caregivers even believe that treating elderly SUD is not as important as treating younger people who have their whole lives ahead of them. In truth, every individual of any age deserves equal access to treatment.
You Don’t Have to Wait to Get Help
If you or an elderly loved one needs treatment for substance use disorder, you don’t have to wait. A few rehab programs have made it their mission to address the unique issues that surround SUD in older demographics.
For some, being the oldest patient in group therapy or recreational outings can be uncomfortable and alienating. One important component of a focused elderly rehabilitation program is being among peers. People your own age share similar life experiences, social issues and health concerns. You will feel more grounded when those around you know where you’re coming from.
A responsive staff is another key factor in successful treatment for elderly SUD. Members of your treatment team must actively listen to your concerns, including your specific health, social and economic problems that contribute or perpetuate your addiction. They must recognize that you are an individual and should be treated as such. A customized approach to elderly SUD therapy is more effective.
During your intake at a rehabilitation center, the person doing an initial evaluation should take note of any significant factors that contribute to substance use. For example, perhaps you are homeless and faced with the challenges of living on the streets. Maybe you recently lost your spouse or a lifelong friend. If the medical professionals treating you do not know about your history, they cannot get to the roots of your addiction.
The most effective rehab programs offer different levels of care according to the needs of individual patients. These might include options ranging from an outpatient program to 24-hour residential therapy. The added flexibility makes it easier to customize your program for optimal results.
How to Approach a Loved One Who Needs Treatment
If you have a loved one struggling with substance use disorder, you can help. Some of the signs to look for include:
• Solitary, secretive drinking
• Loss of interest in hobbies or favorite activities
• Takes tranquilizers at the hint of a disturbance
• Slurred speech
• Neglect of personal hygiene
• Neglected household chores
• Rapid weight loss or gain
Get some advice from a medical professional before approaching the love one with your concerns. When you are ready to address the issues, avoid confrontation. If possible, approach your loved one when he or she is sober. Focus on the positive memories you share rather than the painful ones.
Express your concerns directly to avoid misunderstandings. Describe why you are worried and suggest your loved one seek professional help. Have a phone number available or offer to contact the appropriate specialists.
Interventions can be difficult, so you’ll want to be prepared for a defensive reaction. Have some answers ready to respond to your loved one’s arguments. For example, if the person says it’s none of your business, restate your concern as a friend or family member. If your loved one insists that opioids provide needed relief from pain, point out some healthier alternatives.
Your ultimate goal is to get the person you care about professional treatment for SUD. Overcoming substance use disorder will make the future healthier and more positive. Be persistent because you are offering a lifeline to a friend or family member who is at significant risk.
The Granite House and Elderly Substance Use Disorder Treatment
At The Granite House, we base all of our treatment approaches on our core values of respect, integrity, innovation, excellence and teamwork. We understand the particular issues facing older patients seeking help with SUD. That’s why we tailor our elderly addiction and mental health treatment services accordingly.
The Granite House staff works hard to maintain an environment where you’ll feel comfortable. Your treatment takes place among others in a similar age group with similar life experiences.
The feeling of camaraderie is instrumental in beating your drug or alcohol problem. Our inpatient environment is a positive, empowering atmosphere that lifts you up and prepares you to meet and defeat the challenges of recovery.
If you or someone you know needs help with substance use disorder, contact us today at The Granite House for more information. Our experienced, caring staff members will be happy to discuss your individual situation and concerns.