The Signs of Addiction in Seniors

Are you worried an elderly family member is struggling with addiction? Substance abuse among the over 60s is one of the fastest-growing health problems in America today. Pay close attention when loved ones show these signs.

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The Signs of Addiction in Seniors
5 Min Read June 26th, 2022

Doctors believe that over 17% of adults over age 60 in the United States have some form of addiction - drugs, painkillers, or alcohol. One of the major reasons why seniors go undiagnosed is because symptoms of substance abuse are often confused with the signs of aging. 

A 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that nearly one million adults aged 65 and older live with a substance use disorder. The use of illicit drugs in older adults, while lower than in the general population, is increasing with seniors.

As we get older, our bodies change. Seniors are often more susceptible to the effects of drugs because as the body ages, it can't absorb and break down drugs and alcohol as easily as it did at younger ages.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says there is an increased risk of unintentionally misusing medicines which sometimes can create an addiction because of the misuse. While in some cases, older people forget to take their medicine, they can also take their medications too often or overdose.

The inability to cope with the challenges of aging can also lead to drug and alcohol abuse in older adults. Some people have problems dealing with the changes that occur as they get older, like retirement, grief, loss of loved ones, declining health, or a change in living situation.

Alcohol Abuse Leading Reason for Treatment

The NIDA says that most admissions to substance use treatment centers in this age group are for alcohol. Many rehab facilities nationwide, like Birmingham's Abbey Care (https://www.abbeycarefoundation.com/rehab/birmingham), can help seniors and treat them for their addiction. 

Addressing problems before they become too challenging to deal with is always beneficial. Families can take note of common signs of drug and alcohol abuse to help their loved ones get ahead of a growing drug and alcohol problem. 

If a loved one is showing some of these signs, it may be a clue that there is a problem that should be addressed.

  • They Are Spending a Lot of Money 

If your loved one has suddenly started spending more money without any explanation, then they could have developed a substance addiction. 

They may start asking to borrow money, or you may notice that they stop spending money in other areas of their life to make up for this new expenditure. 

There can be many other reasons for what appears to be out-of-control spending. No matter the reason, the root of the problem should be addressed.

  • They're Not Coping Well with Retirement 

One of the main reasons why older people turn to substance abuse is because retirement causes a tremendous change in their lives that retirement can bring. 

Many people feel like their lives lose purpose once they have retired. Especially if money is tight without an income. 

If your loved one seems frustrated with their retired life, it is best to keep an eye on them. Try to help them find other ways to fill their time. Many activities and hobbies may interest them. Even volunteering, perhaps in an area of interest, can make their life meaningful.

  • Their Eating Habits Have Changed 

Alcohol, drugs, and painkillers can affect an older person's appetite and ability to eat normally. If they start eating less, don't just chalk it up to growing older, especially if the change is sudden. 

If their eating habits change, dig deeper into their lives. A sudden change could be a sign of a health problem or an addiction. Both are worth investigating. 

  • You Start to Hear from Them Less 

If you are used to frequently hearing from your older loved one, and then this suddenly changes, you should investigate it. Losing contact with the people in their lives is a common side effect of depression or addiction - they often go hand in hand. 

It could also indicate health problems, early dementia, or depression that a doctor should review. Be proactive; if your loved one is not communicating with you like usual, reach out to them and don't give up.

  • They Become Secretive About Doctor's Appointments

It is not unusual for an adult child to go to a doctor's appointment with their older parent or call them following each appointment. If this abruptly changes, there could be a problem. 

There could be many reasons for this change, including a sign of addiction. An older adult may not want to admit to their family there is a problem. They may also want to hide increasing health problems from their family.

Doctors are usually able to notice these types of changes. If your older loved one tries to hide their addiction from you, they won't want you near their doctor. 

You can contact the doctor if you have medical power of attorney. If not, be persistent in asking questions and observant of what might be happening. 

  • They Get Defensive When You Talk to Them 

It is normal for someone to ask their loved one about what they are up to and how their day was. If you ask them how their day was and they start to get angry or defensive, they may be trying to hide something from you. 

Pay attention when they get angry, especially if you are the only one asking innocuous questions. If they clam up, they may be hiding something. While it may not be a drug or alcohol addiction - it is something.

  • They Have Unexplained Bruises 

Unexplained bruises aren't always a symptom of addiction and intoxication. They can be a symptom of aging, including a progressing health problem. 

Bruises can be indicative of serious health problems, including falls. Falls can be caused by numerous problems, including balance issues from the overuse of alcohol. 

Older people are more likely to fall over when sober, but this can happen all the time when they are under the influence. 

  • They Develop Memory Problems 

There is an increased risk of dementia as you get older. However, some medications, health problems, and drug and alcohol use can also cause memory problems. 

What would be an obvious symptom of addiction in a 30-year-old isn't so evident in a 70-year-old. Changes in behavior and unusual memory loss require further investigation.

  • They Are Suddenly in A Lot of Pain 

This is yet another symptom of addiction that can be mistaken for something else in an older person. 

If your loved one is experiencing a lot of pain, be sure they see their doctor and get them to talk honestly about their lifestyle. Encourage them to allow you to attend and help 'take notes.' 

Many drugs can cause pain throughout the body. 

  • They Develop Depression, Paranoia, Or Anxiety 

Depression, paranoia, and/or anxiety can be a precursor to addiction but can also be a symptom. 

If your loved one is struggling with depression, they may turn to substance abuse. However, these substances are depressants and can make them feel much worse in the long run. 

If they start exhibiting any of these symptoms - take them to a doctor.

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Editor's Note

Getting older has challenges. Older people also have drug and alcohol addictions like many others who are younger. However, some of the symptoms of addictions are also signs of aging-related health problems.

Being prepared for the consequences of aging should be part of your retirement plan. Ensuring your future access to quality care services is another vital part of retirement planning. Don't forget that long-term health care costs are expensive and can adversely impact your lifestyle and legacy. Finally, few of us want to burden our family members. Family caregivers face physical and emotional burdens.

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