As the population of senior citizens grows in the United States, so too does the need for caregivers. In many cases, a senior becomes his spouse’s 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 himself; 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.

1. The Senior Caregiver has Access to Prescription Medications

As a whole, 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 each day, 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. And, many of these caregivers have access to psychoactive medications, which is a type of drug with the greatest potential for misuse. Thus, senior caregivers who turn to prescription medications often develop a substance abuse problem.

2. 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 burden as a result of 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. 

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3. 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 the ways in which 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 history of drinking, and already exhibits signs of substance or alcohol abuse.

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Editor's Note

The financial costs and burdens of aging have a tremendous impact and on, your family, your savings and your lifestyle. Caregiving is hard on everyone. Being a family caregiver, whether a spouse or daughter or daughter-in-law has an impact on the caregiver’s health. Plus, a daughter usually has their own family and career in addition to trying to help a mom or dad. Affordable Long-Term Care Insurance provides the resources for quality caregivers either at home or in a facility. This will safeguard your savings and ease the burdens placed on loved ones.