When you picture an alcoholic or drug addict, you probably don’t picture your grandmother
Sure, she likes a glass of wine or two, and sure, she takes a lot of prescription pills, but who doesn’t? Most people think similarly. However, that needs to change. While people shouldn’t be quick to judge, they should become aware of the increase of substance abuse and addiction in the elderly.
A Different Kind of Addiction in the Elderly
Alcohol and drug abuse among older people is on the rise globally. There has been a staggering increase in substance abuse and addiction in the elderly in the UK. There has been an increase in hospital admissions due to drug abuse in the elderly in the past decade, and more older people are seeking addiction treatment. Unfortunately, that number is expected to rise further.
Addiction in the elderly comes in all forms, but generally, it is of a different nature than younger people. For example, older people have fewer issues with illegal drugs such as heroin. Illicit drug use does occur, but only about 5% of older adults use them, compared to higher figures for younger demographics. Instead, addiction for elderly people in the UK tends to be to alcohol and prescription drugs.
Substance Abuse in the Elderly Presents Unique Issues
There are many complications that arise everywhere from diagnosis to treatment. Not only is addiction in the elderly hard to notice, but it also has a greater impact than one would think. In addition, treatment can present a challenge of its own.
If you compare signs of ageing and signs of addiction, you might notice quite a few similarities. Symptoms like forgetfulness, mood instability, tiredness or clumsiness can all be attributed to old age. In fact, even many medical professionals make the same mistake. This is why substance abuse often goes unnoticed.
As people enter retirement, they might also find themselves more isolated or worried about the future. They may find it more difficult to ask for help, find proper medical treatment, or pay for necessary support.
Cognitive decline might also make older people less aware of a substance problem, especially if they become addicted to something that a doctor legitimately prescribed. If they have been on the medication for a long time, they may have become functional users. This means they will not only fool themselves but those around them.
Old age not only slows the brain but body functions as well. Therefore, the metabolism of drugs and alcohol goes down over time. This means that the effect that two drinks had before can now be achieved with one. Or the standard prescribed dose of a medication might linger in the body for twice as long. As a result, an overdose can happen unintentionally.
Legal Drug Abuse and Addiction in the Elderly
Of all the drugs, older people often use or are prescribed the three most addictive and dangerous ones in the world “alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiates.
Alcohol is the most common substance that people are addicted to. It is widely available and socially acceptable. The person drinking in their old age is probably not new to it. However, alcohol will affect an older person much more than a younger person. In addition, alcohol can also interact with many prescription drugs and can cause unintended side effects.
Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, two common issues in older people. Although beneficial in the right circumstances, they are one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs, even for young, healthy individuals.
Opiates can be given after surgery or prescribed if a person suffers from chronic pain. Also highly addictive, prescription painkillers can cause many issues if abused.
It can be very difficult to spot signs of prescription drug abuse, on top of the issues of elderly abuse. For more insight on prescription drug abuse, and how to help, read this.
Why Does Addiction Happen to the Elderly?
There are many reasons why an older person might become dependent on alcohol or drugs. Ageing does not come without complications, such as retirement and other life-changing events.
Retirement often comes as a shock, even if one anticipates it. One moment you’re busy with work and family, and the next” you’re not. Although many people look forward to having time off, they underestimate how much time that actually is. The result? Boredom. Lack of activity, entertainment, and socialising can drive one into a depression. Thus, one might turn to alcohol or drugs as a substitute.
As one gets older, there might be other shocks. This may be the death of a loved one or an unfortunate diagnosis. For some, it may mean moving away from the place they’ve always called home, and possibly relocating into a retirement community.
Loneliness can arise from all that, especially as one’s children get older and more independent.
Other problems that come with old age are physical and mental health issues. Not only are they a major source of distress, but they are often the reasons why addictive drugs are prescribed in the first place.
Signs of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults
The symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse are not often obvious. Most people in old age do not get addicted to drugs because they want to get high, but rather to self-medicate. Furthermore, they may be functional (and thus less-noticeable) users if they have been on the medication for a long time.
Although each of these signs can have alternative explanations, they are the ones to look for if one suspects substance abuse. Here are some common symptoms:
- Memory loss
- Change in sleeping or eating habits
- Injuries or accidents
- Unstable moods
- Unexplained chronic pain or medical complaints
- Poor decision making
- Neglect of self-care
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Loss of mobility or dexterity
If you notice multiple symptoms, especially if you find that they have come suddenly, it might be a warning sign. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and address the issue when it starts. Read here for more information about spotting signs of addiction in the elderly.
How to Address Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Addiction in the Elderly
When substance abuse or addiction is suspected and diagnosed, it is necessary for the person to receive proper treatment. However, older people with alcoholism or a drug addiction may need more specialised care, which may be challenging.
If the problem is serious, an inpatient treatment facility is likely to be recommended. This is for a number of reasons. First, most residential rehabs have on-site medical support, which is important, especially if the person has other medical issues. And second, for alcohol, benzodiazepines or opiates, a medically supervised detox will be necessary. This is true for a person of any age, as the withdrawal process can be life-threatening.
Choosing a residential rehab may be a challenge as well. It is important that the facility takes a full-body approach, meaning that they will treat accompanying psychological issues and medical issues, as well as addiction. Though not always necessary, it may be wise to look for a centre that specialises in senior care, or at least provides a personalised treatment plan, as the elderly have different needs. In some cases, gender-specific programmes can also be beneficial.
If you have doubts about an older person’s signs of ageing”, you should take the highly sceptical approach and make thorough enquiries. Addiction is an illness that should not be ignored and the older a person gets, the less able their bodies will be to cope with it.
Castle Craig Hospital has over 30 years of experience treating all types of addictions in all age groups. If you have questions about your options, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Without any obligation, our staff can give you advice about your situation. Feel free to reach out to us at 0808 231 1960 from the UK, or +44 1721 788152 from overseas.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | June 15, 2021