For many people, the profile of a drug addict is someone in their 20s or 30s who is living a life that is irresponsible, unhealthy and unstructured. Yet drug addiction is not limited to a type of person, especially when it comes to age. Older adults are just as much at risk for drug abuse as our youth, and sometimes, these risks are even greater as elders require more medication and a may have a liberal view of illegal substances from the 1960s and 70s.
In fact, new research shows that substance abuse in those ages 60 and over exists in 17 percent of the population, and these numbers are expected to double by 2020. These statistics are not meant to be scary or discouraging, yet they should educate us on the dangers of drug addiction at any age. If we believe that drug addiction only exists in the young, we can miss the warning signs in our own parents and grandparents.
Why is Drug Addiction in Elders a Growing Problem?
Senior citizens have never been exempt from the dangers of substance abuse problems, but the number of elders struggling with addiction is rising. Why is this?
The first and most obvious reason for dependency is that the problem has stemmed from the younger years. Today’s baby boomers grew up in a world that was more liberal and accepting toward illegal drugs, and some have simply carried the habit into their older years. Surprisingly, however, this isn’t the norm, since most people are unable to continue with an addiction for decades. Yet there are some individuals who simply never let go of their addictive tendencies, and these habits worsen when retirement comes along.
The lack of structure and extra time that elders tend to have following retirement is what leads to more substance abuse problems. These years can be difficult since elders may be losing their own parents or friends, or they may be suffering from their own medical conditions and physical ailments. When you put these factors together, they can drive a person who has past experience with drugs and alcohol to a new level.
An even greater problem is that seniors have access to a variety of medications. They are often prescribed pain medications, sleep aids and muscle relaxers. Doctors believe that these older adults have the self-control and maturity to take the medications as prescribed, but many medications are addicting and easily abused. When an elder then experiences something as tragic as the loss of a loved one, they use these drugs to self medicate.
Additionally, seniors are prescribed more medication than they often need because the root of the problem isn’t given the appropriate amount of attention. In the young, we focus on getting down to the heart of our issues so that we can be successful in the real world through our jobs, parenting and relationships. Yet as we grow older, there isn’t as much emphasis placed on working through our problems. Elders often feel that they have lived their lives, so it’s easier to turn to drugs to take away the pain and anxiety.
What are the Danger Signs?
Warning signs of elder drug abuse can be difficult to spot because elders are often more irritable, forgetful and cranky, especially if they are dealing with a major event in their life, such as the death of their spouse, divorce or sickness. Yet the signs of drug addiction are just like in anyone else and include :
- Memory lapses
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes in diet
- Increased isolation
- Poor personal hygiene
- Poor concentration skills
Added Barriers for Elders
Even if drug addiction is suspected, it can be difficult to treat an elder. Many people believe that you can’t “teach an old dog new tricks,” so if the individual has always struggled with drinking and drugs, family members won’t intervene at this point in time. Furthermore, family members and friends may be hesitant to mediate because they don’t want to make matters worse. If they know that their loved one has been hurting emotionally or physically, they may believe that their familiy member is better off taking the drugs to self medicate.
An additional obstacle is that family members don’t want to be “written out of the will.” If they’ve had a good rapport with a wealthy uncle for instance, they won’t want to rock the boat by interfering and demanding treatment or psychological help. Instead, people stand back and allow the problem to exist.
What Can be Done to Help?
The best thing we can do as a society is understand that substance abuse among elders is a very real problem, and it’s growing. By recognizing the signs and symptoms of abuse, we can better identify a problem in a loved one. It’s also important that we value the lives of older adults and not write them off as being at the end of their journeys. Elders deserve to live a life that is happy, healthy and fulfilling. Even though there can be a lot of heartache in our older years, that doesn’t mean normal, healthy coping skills should be lost or forgotten.
If you suspect drug addiction in an elder, don’t hesitate to give them the same care and support that you would if they were in their 20s. The River Source works with drug addicts of all ages and backgrounds, and we know that it’s possible to restore the lives of all addicts. Age – as they say – is just a number.