If your parents or other family members were youth in the 1960s or 1970s, they grew up in an era where they explored drugs. If you are concerned that an older loved one is now struggling with addiction, recognizing the signs of substance abuse in older adults is critical.
Sure, it might be hard to imagine older family members being part of the family on Coachella or a basement rave party. That's why we often miss and fail to recognize signs of addiction in our elderly. Substance abuse can still be a concern even if your loved one is receiving home care or lives in a long-term care facility.
The pathological coping mechanism is present in the older population more than ever. If you want to help, here is a guideline for recognizing substance abuse in older adults.
Substance Abuse Doesn’t Discriminate Due to Age
Even though we (unfairly) often put drug abuse in a drawer of our minds dedicated to young people and music festivals, an increasing number of older adults give into substance abuse.
More and more older adults are suffering from substance abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says illicit drug use typically declines after age 25. Recent data reports that nearly 1 million adults aged 65 and older live with a substance use disorder.
If you have a parent that lived their youth in the 1960s or 1970s, they grew up in an era of drug experimentation. The 1960s brought us tie-dye, sit-ins, and openness to drug use. Hippies smoked marijuana, a lot of marijuana. Drugs started to become glamorous through the 1970s. The 1980s brought us "Just Say No" from former first lady Nancy Reagan, but the young people from the 60s and 70s became working adults in the 80s.
The youth of the 1960s and 1970s are now the senior citizen of today. They may not visually look like they did in the 60s or 70s, but some are at higher risk of substance abuse. They have more time on their hands and more money in their wallet. More and more older adults find themselves again using and abusing substances, but they are no longer 19 years old.
Severe Consequences for Older Adults
The consequences of drug and alcohol abuse for older adults can be more severe. Older adults typically metabolize substances more slowly, and their brains can be more sensitive to drugs. Plus, pre-existing health problems that many people over age 50 suffer from can become more complicated when someone has substance abuse. Drug or alcohol abuse can worsen conditions like depression, lung and heart problems, or memory issues.
The current speed of life and everyday stresses take their toll, making a ground for severe addictions. These addictions often go unnoticed because - who would've thought their sweet grandma would be the one to do that, right? This is the way society thinks, and it's not your fault. But, to recognize something - you need to expect it. So, putting stereotypes aside and opening your eyes is the only path to helping your loved one.
The second rule is - to notice any difference in the habits of an older adult around you. Often, substance abuse symptoms can be very similar to the signs of aging. Therefore, substance abuse in older adults is often difficult to identify. But the different habits can be a warning that something's wrong. Do they suddenly start spending a suspicious amount of time in a wine basement? Do they often 'lose' their med prescription and need a new one?
Understand how drugs work.
If you want to recognize something, you have to know it. Different kinds of drugs work differently; the more you know about their symptoms, the better you'll identify the problem. The most frequently abused substances in the older population are:
In medical circles, the abuse of alcohol in the elderly is often referred to as a 'hidden epidemic.' The accessibility of alcohol and similarity of symptoms to the common signs of aging make it nearly impossible to recognize alcohol abuse in every patient. That's why friends and family must step in and pay attention.
Slurred speech and a lot of empty bottles are the most obvious ones. But, if you notice frequent mood swings, anxiety, depression, or any sign of cognitive impairment (such as forgetfulness or confusion), it might be time to pay some extra attention and consider consulting a professional for help.
Alcohol induces liver enzymes that break down most of the medications. So, a sneaky sign of addiction that may come unnoticed is increased tolerance to other medicines.
The problem is some of these same symptoms can be attributed to aging issues, but unlike many aging health problems, addiction can be treated, and the symptoms can disappear.
Ativan, Xanax, Versed, and Valium are widely prescribed for states of anxiety, depression, muscle spasms, and seizures. They are also widely abused. Anxiety and depression are incredibly fragile states that often lead to abuse. Hence, you need to pay special attention if your loved one is taking benzodiazepines to treat those states.
Doctors also use some of these medications in surgical procedures because they cause anterograde amnesia. Meaning - they induce memory loss so patients wouldn't remember the unpleasant feelings during the operation. So, if you notice some problems with memory, it might not be a sign of dementia. The other tell-tale signs of benzos abuse are drowsiness, profuse sweating, decreased attention span, and difficulty with spatial reasoning.
Addiction to prescribed medications is widespread and very hard to overcome without help. So, if you notice any of these symptoms, you should consider asking for professional help immediately.
Prescription drug rehab centers will help your loved one learn the ways of dealing with it and provide the necessary support.
Opioids and Cocaine
People with chronic pain are often given synthetic opioids, which are highly addictive. Also, throughout history, cocaine was used as a local anesthetic. So, many older adults with chronic pain decide to use it as a mood-increasing painkiller.
If you notice that a person on painkillers often runs out of their medications or shows withdrawal symptoms (such as vomiting or nausea) - it should set off an alarm to worry.
Cocaine abusers show different signs. Less sleep, little appetite and more energy, paranoia and dilated pupils, runny nose, and sniffling - these are all red flags you need to pay attention to.
Marijuana and Heroin
Seniors often use cannabis to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, glaucoma, pain, and cancer - common chronic illnesses in the elderly. So, abuse of it is pretty common in older adults. Abuse of marijuana, unfortunately, frequently leads to abuse of heroin, so recognizing the early signs is essential. Marijuana abusers are lethargic, less coordinated, with bloodshot eyes and memory loss.
On the other hand, heroin users are also slow in their thoughts and movements. But, they have contracted pupils and so-called 'track marks,' visible signs of injections on their skin. Also, withdrawal symptoms are more severe and include itchiness, pain, and extreme vomiting.
The recognition of illness, even though crucial, is not as important as love and support after it. If you recognize the symptoms and start judging the person because of it, you won't help. On the contrary, you might even make it worse. Be sure to treat this condition as any other illness - because it's what addiction is. You wouldn't judge a person for having chronic pain, would you? Then, you shouldn't judge someone who became addicted to opioids because of that pain.
Addiction often becomes a physiological process after a very short time. Therefore, it's not in the patient's power to overcome it without help.
Recognizing substance abuse in older adults may be more complicated than doing the same thing with the younger population, mainly because we don't expect it, so we don't look for the signs. But, if you follow these guidelines and pay a little attention to the subtle changes, you will be in a position to recognize them and help your loved one get the necessary treatment.
About the Author
Jane Stinson is a relocation specialist who has worked with many seniors over the years. Having seen how hard some of them have taken it, she has decided to start blogging about helping seniors, and younger generations, move to their new homes. Jane aims to make the whole experience more comfortable. In her free time, she enjoys reading and gardening.
Contributor since March 26th, 2021
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