Substance Abuse Problems with Senior Caregivers

Often, without an advance plan, a spouse becomes the default caregiver. Sometimes that person develops a substance abuse problem. How do you spot it?

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Substance Abuse Problems with Senior Caregivers
3 Min Read September 21st, 2017 Updated:January 17th, 2023

As the population of older adults grows in the United States, so does the need for caregivers. In many cases, a senior becomes his spouse’s initial caregiver because they live together, are retired, and have sworn to take care of one another through sickness and in health. But, being the primary caregiver for a loved one takes its toll on the health and well-being of the caregiver; so much so, in fact, that a surprising number of senior caregivers develop substance abuse problems. You need to know how to determine whether this is the case in your family.

Senior Caregivers have Access to Prescription Medications

Older Americans are at a greater risk for prescription drug abuse because they take more prescription medications than other age groups. While Americans aged 65 and older account for 13% of the population, they consume an estimated 33% of all prescription drugs. They also often take more than one prescription daily, which increases the likelihood of making mistakes or mixing drugs that should not be combined.

In fact, drug misuse in the older population is rising, according to the Administration on Aging: “Misuse of prescription medications, also referred to as non-medical use of prescription drugs, is estimated to increase from 1.2 % in 2001 to 2.4% in 2020 – a 100% increase – among older adults.”

Seniors often self-medicate when they feel depressed, lonely, or isolated, and all of these feelings are common for caregivers. Many of these caregivers have access to psychoactive medications, a drug with the greatest potential for misuse. Thus, senior caregivers who turn to prescription medications often develop a substance abuse problem.

The Senior Caregiver has a History of Drinking

It is common to find seniors who have been drinking for decades and who are accustomed to having cocktails at certain times of the day. They then become caregivers and self-medicate with alcohol because they see it as a comfort. Senior caregivers often use alcohol to cope, and people who once were social drinkers begin drinking excessively to handle the responsibilities of being a family caregiver.

Indeed, caregiver burden drives senior caregivers to alcohol abuse; they experience social and emotional burdens due to caregiving, which significantly increases their risk of alcohol abuse. Caregivers also suffer declining physical health and often need more medical care than their peers who are not caregivers. They also have higher rates of depression and anxiety. 

The Senior Caregiver Exhibits Signs of Substance or Alcohol Abuse

Any time you want to determine whether a loved one has a substance abuse problem, you need to know the signs. Signs of a substance abuse problem in seniors include:

  • Appearing over-sedated, disoriented, or impaired

  • Having poor balance or an unsteady gait

  • Requesting early refills of medication

  • Reporting more than once that their medications are lost or stolen

  • Exhibiting signs of poor hygiene or having a disheveled appearance

  • Experiencing appetite changes

  • Having mood swings or significant personality changes

  • Feeling increased isolation

  • Demanding prescription medication when visiting the doctor

You also need to know the signs of alcohol abuse in seniors:

  • Drinking to cope with loss or depression

  • Combining alcohol with prescription or over-the-counter medications

  • Exhibiting signs of drunkenness, including slurred speech

  • Lying about how many drinks they have consumed

Because some of the symptoms of substance abuse and alcohol abuse mirror signs of depression, it can be difficult to determine whether a senior caregiver is depressed or has developed a substance abuse problem. You need to confront your loved one and share your concerns about his health and how his actions affect the care recipient. You then should consult with his primary care provider to determine how to proceed with his potential substance abuse issue, especially if he has access to prescription medications, has a drinking history, and already exhibits signs of substance or alcohol abuse.

More older adults are seeking treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Family members should pay particular attention when an older parent takes care of the other parent. Ideally, professional long-term health care should be brought in to supervise both individuals and provide quality care for the one needing care.

If they have a Long-Term Care Insurance policy, be sure they use the benefits. The benefits will pay for the in-home care and reduce the stress on the other parent and the rest of the family. If they do not own a policy, it may be too late since LTC Insurance is medically underwritten and priced based on age and health when the policy is issued. 

Most people get coverage in their 50s, so adult children should consider getting their coverage before they retire to reduce the stress on their family and ensure quality care and better quality of life.

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About the Author

Marie is passionate about connecting seniors with the resources they need to live happy, healthy lives. She developed a website to provide seniors and their caregivers with resources.

LTC News Contributor Marie Villeza

Marie Villeza

Contributor since June 22nd, 2017

Editor's Note

Do you have a strategy to improve your quality of life as you age? Have you given this any thought at all? Too many people avoid going to the doctor, taking action to improve their physical and mental health and plan for the consequences of aging.

If you are in your 40s or 50s, take action now.

  • See your doctor annually

  • Be sure to get complete blood work, including a comprehensive metabolic panel 

  • Don't ignore colonoscopies and other recommended testing

  • Complete a will, including a living will

  • Discuss aging with your family

  • Contribute to your employer's 401(k) or other retirement plans

  • Add Long-Term Care Insurance to your plan

Most people get Long-Term Care Insurance in their 50s. The younger and healthier you are, the more affordable a policy will be. Delaying will make it more difficult to get coverage and increase the cost.

An LTC policy will ensure you have access to quality care services, including home care. When you have the resources to pay for quality care, your family can concentrate on being family instead of becoming caregivers.

Professional Help to Ensure You Have the Right Plan

There are several top-rated insurance companies that offer long-term care solutions. Each insurance company has its own underwriting standards, and premiums can vary over 100% between insurance companies. LTC Insurance is custom designed. A qualified Long-Term Care Insurance specialist will match you with the best company to save you money. A specialist will put together accurate quotes from all the top companies based on your age, health, family history, and other factors.

Accurate Answers to Your Questions About Long-Term Care Planning

LTC NEWS has many tools and resources. These resources can help you in your research as you prepare for your future retirement and plan for the costs and burdens of aging and declining health.

Parent’s Health Declining? Do They Need Care Now?

Get quality care for your parent or parents if they require it. LTC NEWS can assist. We've put together a few comprehensive guides to help you along the way.

Find help locating quality caregivers or long-term care facilities and get recommendations for a proper care plan, whether a person has a policy. - Filing a Long-Term Care Insurance Claim.

These four guides can be very helpful as you try to find appropriate long-term care services for a loved one:

If your loved one is fortunate enough to have Long-Term Care Insurance, make sure they use it. Families may wait, believing that they can save the benefits for a rainy day. It is not a good idea to put off using available Long-Term Care Insurance benefits.

Today's Reverse Mortgages Can Benefit Older Families

Some people have a large portion of their savings in their homes. With the help of reverse mortgages, you can find ways to pay for quality in-home care, pay for LTC Insurance, and even assist with cash flow during retirement.

Yes, today's reverse mortgages may be the perfect way to pay for a Long-Term Care Insurance policy or even cover the cost of in-home care if you or a loved one is currently in need.

Asking an expert with your questions will help you learn more. Mike Banner, a columnist for LTC NEWS and the host of the television program "62 Who Knew," will respond to your inquiries about long-term care, reverse mortgages, aging, and health.

- Just "Ask Mike." - Reverse Mortgages | LTC News.

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