Substance Abuse Article:

Substance abuse where we least expect it

by Jessica Adams

While our nation is focused on the use of street drugs among teenagers, nearly one out of every five seniors struggles with a different kind of substance abuse. Prescription drugs and alcohol are legal, but that doesn't make the addiction any less devastating to older adults and their families.

According to the Healthy Aging Partnership, a coalition of 40 Puget Sound area not-for-profit organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults, substance abuse is often hidden simply because people tend to live less public lives as they grow older. Also, symptoms such as forgetfulness often are attributed to aging, not drug and alcohol abuse.

Abrupt changes in work or volunteer attendance and unusual mood swings are two of the most common signs of a problem, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Consult with a physician if you suspect an older friend or relative of substance abuse, and remember that it's rare for anyone, young or old, to admit to an addiction voluntarily.

It's up to friends and family to be alert to the warning signs, says the Healthy Aging Partnership, which offers the following tips:

  • Older adults may be more likely to develop problems with alcohol or prescription drugs if they suffer from depression, loneliness, boredom, stress or chronic pain. Talking to family or friends about these issues can help head off a problem before it starts.
  • Talk to your loved one about their substance abuse while they are sober, not when he/she has been drinking. The discussion may go more smoothly if led by a trained professional who treats drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Having a glass of wine with a meal or a beer with friends and family is fine as long as a doctor has said it is okay to drink. But drinking alcohol or using drugs becomes a problem when it negatively affects the person and others.
  • Don't use blame as a tool for persuasion. Alcoholism and addiction is a disease, not a weakness. Discuss the problem with a doctor or plan an intervention if necessary.
  • A history of substance abuse certainly increases the risk, but even seniors with no history of abuse can suddenly fall prey to an addiction.
  • Signs of an addiction in older adults include mood swings, loss of appetite, complaints of anxiety, problems sleeping and failing memory. Conflicts at work or with family members also are red flags.

Older adults often resist treatment, but usually become model students after treatment begins. They often follow directions more diligently than younger substance abusers and become more successful at kicking the habit.

If you or someone you know has a substance abuse problem, or if you need other information related to life as an older adult, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464). The free and confidential resource line offers a wealth of information and assistance to seniors and their caregivers.