The stereotypical drug addict usually involves somebody in their twenties. The reality is that people of any age can become dependent on these substances. In fact there is a growing concern about a hidden epidemic of drug addiction among the elderly – here elderly is defined as somebody who is older than 65 years of age. This is a particularly worrying form of drug abuse because it can be difficult to detect, and the elderly population is often ignored when it comes to addiction treatment.
There are believed to be two main types of elderly addict:
*The hardy survivor refers to those drug addicts who have been abusing these substances for many years. There are a minority of substance abusers who begin the abuse at an early age but somehow manage to survive beyond the age of 65 years of age.
* There is also late onset substance abuse. There are many people who will not have any problems with drugs during their working years, probably because they are too focused on their career, but these individuals can fall into addiction in later life.
There are a number of reasons for why drug addiction among the elderly remains largely hidden including:
* There are a significant number of elderly people who live alone. This means that their drug abuse can easily go undetected.
* Those who have reached retirement age will usually have far fewer responsibilities in life. This also makes it easier for them to hide any drug abuse.
* The idea that the elderly have earned the right to their comforts can be used to justify substance abuse. Family members may feel that this person has worked hard for many years so it is understandable that they now want to let their hair down.
* It is easy to blame the symptoms of substance abuse on problems related to age. This means that falls and bizarre behavior can be explained away as being due to the individual getting older.
* Friends and family don’t want to consider the possibility that their elderly loved one could be dependent on alcohol or drugs. There is also a tendency in society as a whole to ignore this type of substance abuse.
* It is usual for elderly people to need to take a number of different medications. The fact that they are regularly popping pills might not raise suspicions the same way as it would with a younger person.
* It is difficult to diagnose substance abuse among the elderly because most diagnostic tools are designed for discovering such behaviors among young people. The questions asked by these diagnostic tools are less relevant to those who are over 65 years of age.
The fact that drug addiction among the elderly is a hidden epidemic means that it is difficult to get a clear picture of the extent of the problem. One study suggested that 26% of elderly citizens abuse prescription or over the counter medications. It has also been estimated that 2.5 million elderly Americans have problems related to alcohol use. If these statistics are correct it portrays a problem that is not being adequately dealt with.
There are a number of causes for elderly drug addiction including:
* Retirement can mean that the individual has lost their meaning and purpose in life. They attempt to fill this void by turning to alcohol and drugs.
* Many elderly people live alone, and this often means that they suffer from loneliness. Substance abuse can help them deal with their isolation.
* They may turn to alcohol or drugs to help them deal with grief – for example, grief over the loss of their life partner.
* Some elderly people suffer from chronic pain. In their attempts to deal with this they can become hooked on painkillers.
* Financial worries can be another driving force behind attempts to escape reality using chemicals.
* As people get older their health begins to deteriorate, and this can lead to a great deal of worry about the future. Substance abuse can be a way to deal with deteriorating health and fear of death.
* Some individuals will suffer from declining cognitive functioning, and this may make them more prone to substance abuse.
* There are many elderly people who are estranged or ignored by their families. Alcohol or drugs can appear to offer these people some solace.
* Doctors are less likely to refer elderly people for addiction treatment. This means that the problem can be just ignored.
While the elderly will usually have fewer responsibilities than younger people they can still suffer immensely as a result of drug abuse. Dangers include:
* It may shorten the number of years that the individual has left on the planet. These substances are toxic and can do a great deal of damage to the body.
* Drugs and alcohol tend to do more damage to older people than they will be to younger people. This is because their body is less able to deal with the abuse – for example, they will have fewer liver enzymes to deal with these substances.
* Substance abuse can lead to mental deterioration. This means that those who are suffering from age related cognitive deterioration will be exacerbating the problem.
* Tolerance levels for alcohol and drugs decreases with age.
* Intoxication means that seniors will be more at risk of falls and other injuries.
* Older people may not see the point in seeking help for their alcohol and drug problems. This means that their addiction never gets treated.
* Retirement can be the most fulfilling part of a person’s life but those who fall into substance abuse will be missing out on this.
The substances that seniors are most likely to abuse include:
* Alcohol is the most widely abused substances among the elderly.
* There are significant numbers of elderly marijuana users. This will often be people who got into the habit of taking this substance during the 1960s when it first became really popular.
* Those people who are over the age of 65 years of age are the largest consumers of prescription medications. A minority of this group will be abusing these substances recreationally.
The hidden epidemic of elderly abuse is a serious concern because it can cause so many problems for this age group. If the symptoms of drug abuse among the elderly can be noticed then it will make it easier to tackle the problem. The most common signs of this type of dependence include:
* The individual is has suffered recurrent falls or has unexplained bruises. These should be investigated and not just dismissed as being part of growing older.
* Secretive behavior.
* Personality changes.
* The individual always appears to be ill in the mornings. This may be due to hangovers.
* Loss of interest in things they once enjoyed.
* Increasing financial problems even though there has been no change in their income – of course inflation will need to be ruled out as a cause.
* The individual becomes irritable if anyone questions their alcohol or drug use.
* Mood swings and anger outbursts.
* They are isolating from other people and wish to spend increasing amounts of time alone.
* They seem pessimistic about the future and exhibit a great deal of negativity.
* Changing doctors in order to get repeat prescriptions. The individual may even be willing to drive to another town in the hope of getting additional medication.
* They are behaving irrationally.
* Symptoms of depression.
* Loss of memory and blackouts.
* They seem unable to concentrate on things.
Just because the individual is exhibiting some of these symptoms does not necessary mean that they are abusing alcohol or drugs. Observation of these symptoms though, may suggest that further investigation is warranted.