Substance abuse is among the elderly is a real problem. They are a particularly vulnerable group because of the unique challenges that older people face in society. Not only are they more at risk of alcohol and drug abuse, but this is also a part of the population that tends to be ignored. Most media attention on substance abuse is focused on people who in the younger age groups. In western countries there is a growing elderly population so this is likely to become even more of a problem in future years. Senior substance abuse is sometimes referred to as a hidden epidemic.
There are said to be two types of elderly substance abuser:
* The hardy survivors are those who have managed to live past 65 years of age despite the fact that they have abused alcohol or drugs for many years.
* Late onset substance abusers are those who only begin this behavior later in life. They can turn to alcohol or drugs in order to deal with their changing life circumstances.
Elderly people are involved in all types of substance abuse, but they are most likely to abuse:
* Alcohol. One study in the UK found that 7% of women and 17% of men regularly drank above the recommended limits. The figures in the US are believed to be around 10%.
* Prescription drugs. People who are over 65 years of age are the heaviest consumers of prescription drugs. These often include psychoactive and sedative drugs which can be abused for their mind-altering capabilities. There is an increase in the number of people abusing prescription drugs and this is likely to mean an increase in elderly abusers as well.
* Marijuana use is becoming an increasingly popular form of substance abuse among the elderly. The main reason for this is that this drug was particularly popular during the 60s and 70s. Those individuals who first experimented with the drug back then are now part of the elderly population.
There are many reasons why elderly people may turn to alcohol or drugs in later life including:
* Grief due to the death of loved ones
* Health concerns
* Reduced cognitive functioning
* Lack of meaningful employment
* Chronic pain
* Fear of getting old
* Family problems
* Financial hardship
Anyone who abuses alcohol or drugs will be risking damage to their mental and physical health. Those who are over 65 years of age face specific dangers including:
* Older people are far more likely to suffer physical and mental damage as a result of alcohol or drug abuse. Their body will be less able to defend itself against such overindulgence and this can mean that their health will rapidly decline.
* Elderly people tend to have fewer responsibilities and commitments. This means that there is less holding them back from engaging in substance abuse. They do not have to worry about losing their job or failing in their roles as a parent to young children.
* Older people who suffer falls as a result of intoxication will be more likely to suffer serious injury.
* Alcohol can do a lot more damage to people as they get older. This is due to a reduction in liver enzymes to handle alcohol and a change in the fat to water body ratio which means that there is less water to dilute the alcohol. Alcohol also has a much great impact on the mental functioning of seniors.
* Tolerance levels for alcohol and drugs decrease with age. This means that they can experience increasingly negative effects even when they are only using these substances at the same level as in the past.
* Elderly people may feel they have fewer reasons to quit the substance abuse. They may not believe that they have many years left ahead of them. It is easy to justify continued abuse with the idea that it is too late to change.
* Older people will tend to be prescribed a variety of medications to keep them in good health. Mixing these drugs with alcohol or recreational drugs can be highly dangerous.
* Seniors who abuse alcohol or drugs tend to go undetected. Those who live alone will find it easier to hide their substance abuse. They can be far less willing to divulge information about their behavior to outsiders. When the symptoms of this abuse are evident they can be misdiagnosed as the effects of aging. They are also far less likely to encounter legal difficulties as a result of their substance abuse.
* Doctors are less likely to refer older people to substance abuse specialists. This means that they will not have access to the effective resources that could help them stop.
Substance abuse is more likely to occur among those members of the elderly population who are:
* Separated of divorced
* Have suffered bereavement
* Dealing with financial hardship
* Abused substances when they were younger
* Feel disappointed with their achievements in life
* Experience a lot of boredom
* Have a family history of substance abuse
* Are suffering from mental health problems
* Feel socially isolated
It can be a lot harder to diagnose substance abuse in older people. One of the main reasons for this is that diagnostic tools tend to be biased towards identifying this type of behavior among young people. There is often a focus in these assessments on the ability of the individual to fulfill work commitments and family responsibilities. The older individual will have fewer such commitments so it weakens the effectiveness of these standard diagnostic tools.
Older people can be particularly unwilling to admit to substance abuse. They may view that by divulging such personal information they are risking a great deal of shame and embarrassment. The lack of media attention given to elderly substance abuse gives it more of a social stigma. Elderly people can feel that their problems are so unique that they will be viewed particularly harshly.
It can be more difficult to diagnose substance abuse among the elderly; especially those who tend to spend a lot of time alone. It is easier to dismiss signs of abuse as being due to old age. Typical symptoms can include:
* Secretive behavior
* Recurrent falls and unexplained bruises
* Irritability if questions about alcohol or drug use arise
* A loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
* Memory problems and blackouts
* Loss of appetite
* Mood changes when they drink alcohol
* Inability to concentrate
* Withdrawal from any type of social life
* Frequent hangovers
* Neglect of personal grooming and hygiene
* Irrational behavior
* Increasing financial problems even though there has been no change to income
* Negativity and depression
* Evidence of withdrawal symptoms such as the early morning shakes
Once a problem is identified there are a number of treatment options that can help older adults escape substance abuse including:
* Information about the dangers of such abuse can be helpful. Older adults may be unaware of the risk they are taking by using these substances. They may just be using these substances much as they always did and do not realize that the risks have increased. There can also be a lack of knowledge about the dangers of mixing alcohol with certain prescription drugs.
* Addiction support groups can help older people build a life away from substance abuse. Here they will find fellowship and support from other people dealing with the same difficulties.
* Therapists can be a great help for those who are battling with addiction. They can help the individual examine the causes of the problem and guide them towards a solution.
* Addiction rehab can be another option for seniors who are dealing with substance abuse.