Why Senior Citizens Struggle with Addiction
According to the Census Bureau, roughly 84 million adults aged 65 and older will be living in the U.S. by 2050. This has wide-ranging consequences for the nation in everything from providing adequate health care and mobility options to helping seniors cope with drug and alcohol abuse. As more baby boomers enter their golden years, this issue continues to grow. Substance use disorder among those born between 1946 and 1964 has become one of the fastest-growing health concerns in America.
Growing up with counterculture figures such as Timothy Leary and events such as Woodstock, close to half of those born after 1950 used marijuana. This made them the first generation in America to normalize the use of recreational drugs. Many baby boomers considered their youthful experimentation to be harmless.
Unfortunately, some studies indicate that smoking pot increases the possibility of addiction to other substances, including alcohol, thanks to a phenomenon called cross-sensitization. Some estimates indicate that there are almost 6 million alcoholics over the age of 60 in America. While alcohol abuse is the most prevalent addictive substance among older Americans, it is not the only one.
Many elderly Americans have become addicted to painkillers originally prescribed by doctors to help them. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, up to 17% of adults over 60 are addicted to either alcohol and/or prescription drugs.
Additional Reasons Older Americans Struggle With Addictions
As people age, they are more likely to face chronic diseases such as arthritis and cancer. They are also more likely to need life-saving surgeries and other medical procedures. Therefore, surgeons and doctors will prescribe medications to help their elderly patients manage pain. Unfortunately, this has led to an epidemic of opioid addiction among seniors.
Then there are events, such as the Great Recession, that have put stress on those over 55. Many older people were forced to postpone retirement due to stock market losses. Others were laid off and unable to find comparable employment since many employers are unwilling to hire older workers. This type of economic stress can cause depression and anxiety among seniors. To combat this, doctors may prescribe anti-anxiety medications and sedatives. While these may help patients cope with their situation, they can also lead to addiction.
For these and other reasons, many older adults struggle with addiction. Often, their relatives and friends don’t realize they need help. After all, it’s often hard to reconcile the image of grandma with that of an addict, particularly when there were no earlier signs. To make matters worse, even the addict’s doctor may not realize there is a problem.
Health care providers often miss the signs of substance use disorder among their elderly patients. Often, the symptoms of addiction are similar to those of other conditions associated with aging. If they had more time with their patients, doctors might be able to dig deeper. However, with HMOs putting constraints on them, they often spend only a few minutes with each patient.
It’s no wonder that between 6 and 8 million senior citizens battled addiction or mental health disorders, according to a 2010 report by the New York Times. Often, it’s up to close family members to acknowledge that a loved one has a problem and to recommend treatment options. The first step is usually to set up an intervention.
What Treatment Options Are Available for Elderly Patients?
There are many programs available for individuals battling substance use disorder. Some are open to people of all ages while others have been designed specifically for seniors. These include medically supervised drug and alcohol detoxification programs as well as both residential and outpatient treatment options. Because medical and psychological issues may be more severe for elderly individuals, addiction treatment for those over 65 should take into account their unique circumstances.
Physiological changes that occur as people age make addiction particularly pernicious among the elderly. Due to the aging process, their bodies and brains can’t process alcohol and drugs the way they used to. When intoxicated, seniors are more likely to fall and break bones, experience loss of lucidity, and struggle with memory loss. Many of the consequences of substance use disorder are similar to the symptoms of diseases that plague seniors. Therefore, facilities working with the elderly should have experts who can differentiate between what is caused by addiction and symptoms due to an actual underlying condition.
Additionally, senior citizens often use alcohol and other drugs to numb pain associated with chronic conditions, the death of a loved one, or depression due to isolation. That makes it critical that addiction recovery specialists are compassionate and non-judgmental.
Since there are problems unique to senior citizens, programs targeted toward the elderly will serve them better. However, this is not always the case. Some older people do better in programs open to anyone over 18. These seniors benefit from hearing the different perspectives of those in other age groups. In other cases, they may feel more comfortable sharing with their peers. Yet others may desire gender-specific programs as they don’t feel comfortable sharing with people of the opposite sex. As you can see, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Treatment centers need to be flexible.
Depending on the severity of the problem and other factors, the best scenario for the patient might be a residential treatment program. However, outpatient treatment is also possible as are educational and support services and medically supervised detox.
What Are the Signs of Addiction?
Before you rush to stage an intervention with an elderly friend or family member, it’s important to be sure that the problem is an addiction and not an underlying medical issue. When an elderly person slurs their words, it might be due to alcoholism. However, it could also be due to a stroke or tumor. Similarly, while irritation, anger, or mood swings could be due to drug addiction, they might also be due to early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Before jumping to conclusions, first suggest a trip to the doctor if you notice one of the signs of addiction indicated below:
• Increased irritability and agitation
• Unexplained bruises, bloody noses, or bloodshot eyes
• Slurred speech
• Shakes and tremors
• A normally clean person failing to bathe
• Sudden financial difficulties
• Social isolation
How to Approach Someone You Suspect Has an Addiction
First, you may want to accompany your loved one on a doctor visit to make sure there is no underlying medical reason for their behavior. If you’ve ruled that out, then it’s time to discuss their addiction and treatment options.
You don’t want to talk while your loved one is drunk or high. You need to find an appropriate time. One recommendation is to hold off until after an incident occurs for which they may express remorse. It may require patience on your part to wait until they are sober following such an event. However, veer on the side of urgency as you don’t want to hold off until something serious happens.
When the time feels right, hold the conversation in a neutral place and make sure you are kind. Don’t scold or criticize. Instead, express honest concern for the situation. Let them know you care about their welfare. Refer to specific incidents that have occurred and point out that these types of situations were not common in the past. You might want to take along a friend who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous or another recovery group when you have this conversation if you can do so in a non-threatening way. Such a person will have insights into the issues surrounding addiction.
Try to be supportive no matter how upset you may feel. Remember that addiction is a disease that requires treatment, not blame. However, feel free to be specific about particular incidents that you have noticed. Point out how your loved one’s addiction is affecting their time with grandchildren, for example, or an activity that they used to enjoy.
Try to encourage your loved one. Offer to help find a professional to help assess the situation. Point out that many resources are available, including the Green Mountain Treatment Center.
Let your loved one know that there is no shame in seeking help. Many people of their generation need assistance.
What Green Mountain Treatment Center Offers for Elderly Patients?
Granite Recovery Centers offers a full spectrum of therapies for those suffering from substance use disorder. This includes residential care in the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire, where patients can enjoy the crisp air and natural beauty of the Lakes Region while recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. However, there are also outpatient treatment options as well as ongoing support systems.
In many cases, the first step for recovery is detoxification. Since this is often accompanied by a painful withdrawal process, medical supervision is advised. While hospitals and specialty centers can conduct detox, usually for subacute (not life-threatening) cases, Green Mountain Treatment Center offers on-site detox at a facility in Effingham, New Hampshire.
After undergoing detoxification, a patient will be moved to either an inpatient or outpatient program. Residential programs, which offer 24-hour care and additional support, are more immersive and provide a better pathway to recovery for those with deep-seated addiction issues.
At Green Mountain Treatment Center, the residential program occurs in a safe, beautiful, and encouraging environment. Clients experience a supervised and structured program where they can practice and develop life skills and coping mechanisms. They will participate in both group and individual therapy sessions and enjoy physical exercise and other types of recreation. Group-based exercises will help them hone interpersonal skills to combat isolation. Clients are encouraged to do 12-step work as well as take part in evidence-based clinical therapy. Each participant will get individualized care tailored to their needs.
This is particularly valuable for elderly clients who may need additional encouragement and support. While outpatient recovery programs are offered, they are best for those who live in a supportive home environment. For elderly patients who might be isolated or have additional medical conditions, residential programs may be preferable.
For elderly clients who live with or close to supportive family members, outpatient rehab services might be a good option. Green Mountain Treatment Center offers non-residential programs that are 12-step-based and include the same psychotherapy treatment found in the residential programs. Holistic therapies, meetings, and workshops are all offered as well.
With Green Mountain Treatment Center, patients are not abandoned once they complete their rehab. Instead, they have access to extended-care options.
There are support programs for family members, which is particularly important for those caring for an elderly relative. Professionals can help you navigate the unique issues associated with this difficult task. For those who need it, there are also gender-specific programs.
As you can see, Green Mountain Treatment Center provides a full spectrum of care for elderly clients suffering from alcohol and drug addiction issues. For more information about the programs offered at Green Mountain or about Granite Recovery Centers in general, you can visit our website or call us to talk to our experienced staff.