Drug and alcohol abuse among the elderly is a rapidly growing health problem in the United States. Addiction among seniors 65 and older is often underestimated and underdiagnosed, which can prevent them from getting the help they need. Drug or alcohol abuse among older adults is particularly alarming because seniors are more susceptible to the deteriorating effects of these substances.
Substance abuse among seniors can be classified as either those who have been abusing alcohol or drugs for many years and have reached age 65, and those who form addictions later in life. Among adults over age 50, the rate of accidental deaths by drug overdose and the number seeking help for substance abuse has increased in recent years. Chronic alcoholism, misuse or dependence on prescription pain relievers and illicit drug use have all reached record numbers. No population group is prescribed more drugs than seniors, and many of today’s seniors are of a generation that ushered in recreational drug use over four decades ago. Patients with two or more chronic conditions and patients over 65 have a decreased ability to metabolize drugs or alcohol along with an increased brain sensitivity to them. This makes it precarious for seniors to use drugs or alcohol at all, even if they are not addicted.
Although addiction can be difficult to recognize in older adults, it’s important to pay attention to early signs of senior drug abuse. For example, frequent changes in sleeping habits, unexplained bruises, self-isolation, withdrawal, lack of interest in usual activities, failing to bathe or keep clean, and losing touch with family and caregivers.
Awareness of the signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug abuse in seniors with complex care needs and chronic care management issues is important to quality of care. Having care teams available to routinely assess for drug and alcohol history and risk factors that lead to abuse can be essential to better patient care. Mental and physical health and personal relationships may start to deteriorate with aging. Older adults experience more personal loss, and physical pain associated with operations, falls, accidents and some treatments. This may increase their risks for use and abuse.
Chronic Care Managers can work alongside healthcare providers to identify the signs and risks of substance abuse in seniors. Once an addiction is identified, Care Managers can help patients and caregivers find suitable treatment options, namely facilities and providers that have specific experience working with substance addicted seniors. Some programs offer case management services with access to medical and psychiatric resources and can connect seniors to social support services throughout their recovery.
Alcohol or drug abuse may mimic symptoms of other medical or mental health disorders, such as diabetes, dementia or depression. Care Managers can tease apart the difference between symptoms from complex health issues and substance abuse. Healthcare providers should be more aware of the risks for substance abuse, and must work towards changing misconceptions about substance abuse in seniors. Collaborating with skilled Care Managers to recognize risks and signs of substance abuse, and coordinate resources for addicted patients is key to addressing this important health problem in seniors.
Written by Joseph F. West, ScD on Thursday, 19 January 2017. Posted in Substance Abuse, Drug Abuse, Alcholism, CCM