When we discuss substance use, we tend to visualize younger people. While it may be true that certain drugs tend to appeal to a younger user, addiction can happen to a person at any age. As of 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that over a million adults over age 65 had a substance use disorder.
Never Too Old
The misconception that older adults do not use illicit drugs is probably due to underreporting. Because substance use has traditionally been met largely with societal and familial disapproval, most people in older generations hid substance use habits–and their loved ones willingly ignored the behavior to help them save face.
Unfortunately, the number of older adults using substances will likely be even higher in the future, as the Baby Boomer generation came of age at a time when attitudes toward alcohol and drug use were more relaxed. Those same Boomers are now hitting retirement age, and the amount of substance use among the generation is still quite high.
While the shifting attitudes about substance use may have led to increased drug and alcohol experimentation and addiction, that same tolerance of drug use could also lead to the destigmatization of seeking help. If Boomers are more open about using alcohol and other drugs, that openness might be leveraged to support their recovery.
Older Adults & Alcohol
While illicit substances and misused prescription meds are a substance use issue among older adults, alcohol is the most widely used drug among adults over 50. Excessive drinking can be especially detrimental in this population, as the aging process can make it more difficult for a person’s liver to process alcohol. The brain then becomes more susceptible to damage from alcohol consumption, increasing the risk for injury while impaired. Alcohol can also interact with prescription medications, which older adults are more likely to be taking and in higher volumes.
Older Adults & Illicit or Misused Substances
Though it may be easier to visualize a grandfather sitting in his rocker with a can of PBR in his hand than to imagine him using illegal drugs or taking prescription drugs to get high, some senior citizens are doing just that. Just as aging can change a person’s tolerance for alcohol, it can do the same with other drugs. Benzodiazepines can be especially dangerous for older adults because of changes in body chemistry due to age.
Signs of Trouble
SAMHSA listed the following as indicators that a senior might be misusing alcohol or other substances:
- Physical signs: injuries, increased medication tolerance, blackouts, mental impairment
- Psychiatric signs: sleep disturbances, anxiety/depression, mood swings
- Social signs: legal/financial/family problems, loss of a loved one, needing extra supplies of medication
Doctors as Unwitting Dealers
The older population spends a lot of time going to the doctor. An elderly adult may see several specialists in addition to their primary care physician. Unless those doctors are communicating or the pharmacy is keeping track, an older person could easily end up taking a lot of meds, some of which could be contraindicated or duplicates.
Recovery for Seniors
According to SAMHSA, it can be uncomfortable for elderly adults to attend treatment and recovery meetings in a room full of people who are half their age. SAMHSA recommends carving out a space for older adults in recovery to commune together. Older adults, especially those who are new to recovery, might feel the need to parent younger participants in recovery groups and may object to the profanity in discussions. For this reason, it may be better to offer senior-only recovery groups.
Because society was less open about mental illness, addiction, and other personal matters when Boomers were children, they may struggle to discuss it now. When the only people in the room are their own age, it may feel safer to seniors to admit their struggles and begin to address underlying traumas and stressors.
Accessibility of Treatment
Treatment for seniors also needs to take into account that more of them could have mobility issues, need larger print for written materials, and benefit from presenters who speak louder and slower. Without these accommodations, older adults with substance use issues are less able to participate in their own recovery.
At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we strive to make each guest comfortable in our treatment programs, and we are happy to accommodate the unique needs they might have. Our comprehensive assessment guides our professional team in treating the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.