How to Identify Substance Abuse in Seniors

Many people do not suspect substance abuse in seniors because it is often thought to be a problem for teenagers and young adults. Unfortunately, this is a fallacy. Substance abuse in seniors is a growing problem that presents a unique set of challenges. As a caregiver, it’s important to be aware of all potential dangers that seniors face, including addiction and substance abuse.

Why Substance Abuse is Such a Great Threat to the Elderly

There are two types of senior substance abusers:

  • Hardy survivors– People who have used alcohol and drugs for many years and still managed to live past the age of 65.
  • Late-onset– These substance abusers began their addictions in their senior years. In these cases, substances are often used to help deal with things like grief and isolation.

Substance abuse is a great threat to anyone, but it can be especially damaging to those in their senior years. The following are a few unique dangers to consider:

  • Physical and mental damage– Slower metabolic rates can leave substances lingering in the body longer, which can lead to higher intoxication rates. In addition, adults over 65 tend to have weakened immune systems, so the body is less able to defend itself against the abuse.
  • Hopelessness– It takes a lot of mental and physical fortitude to recover from substance abuse, and a senior adult may have trouble looking forward to better times.
  • Mixing drugs– On average, people over 65 take at least four prescription drugs daily. Drugs interactions can be serious or deadly, and many drugs don’t mix well with alcohol.

Substances That Are the Greatest Threat to the Elderly

Caregivers may be more likely to spot addiction if they are aware of a history with a particular substance, but it’s important to look out for late-onset substance abusers too. Seniors who become addicted are most likely to abuse the following substances:

  • Alcohol– Alcohol is widely available in our society, so it’s the easiest substance to abuse. In fact, nearly half of all nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (source).
  • Prescription drugs– People over 65 years of age are more likely to consume prescription drugs, which puts them at greater risk for developing a prescription drug addiction. Drugs that seniors typically become addicted to include psychoactive and sedative drugs.
  • Marijuana– Although this drug probably isn’t top-of-mind when you think of elderly addiction, marijuana may have been a senior’s drug of choice in the 60’s and 70’s. You may have heard that marijuana is not addictive, but a JAMA Psychiatry study shows that nearly 30 percent of people who regularly use marijuana have developed some type of marijuana use disorder, which includes abuse or dependence (source).

Today, addiction poses a serious threat to the aging population. If you suspect that someone you’re caring for is abusing alcohol or drugs, investigate. And if possible, try talking to the person or people in your care about the dangers of addiction. Prevention is always the best cure.

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Trevor is part of the content marketing team for Your First Step and a recovering addict and alcoholic who's been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.