Substance abuse in senior citizens: Recognizing the signs
Substance abuse isn’t just a problem for the young. Loneliness and mental health issues, coupled with pre-existing alcohol and drug habits have turned many older adults to controlled substances in their golden years. Here’s what you should know about recognizing substance abuse in your elders and where to turn for help.
“Substance abuse knows no boundary of age,” says Stephen Scheinthal, DO, an osteopathic geriatric psychiatrist from Stratford, New Jersey. “Whether you are 20 or 80 years old, you may see drinking or taking drugs—whether legal or illegal—as a way of coping with grief, anxiety, depression or pain.”
Substance abuse knows no boundary of age.
Alcohol can have significant interactions with prescribed medications. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., states that 9% of Medicare beneficiaries—that’s about 5 million seniors—ages 65 and older drink more than 30 alcoholic beverages a month and more than four drinks in any one occasion. The organization also reports that 4 out of 5 senior citizens who seek treatment for substance abuse do so because of alcohol instead of other substances.
“These statistics are eye-opening, and present a dangerous combination as older adults often take a higher number of medications to treat chronic illnesses,” says Dr. Scheinthal. “On average, seniors take four to nine pills per day between their prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications, and abuse of these medications is not always easy to spot,” he adds.
According to Dr. Scheinthal, overuse of prescribed medications or the act of combining medications with alcohol or other controlled substances can lead to a number of serious consequences, such as:
- Balance issues
- Cognitive problems
- Sleeping problems
- Increased odds of developing other medical disorders
- Adverse reactions that have the potential to be lethal
“With so many potential complications, it is vitally important for older people to talk with their physicians about all medications they are taking, both prescribed and over-the-counter, and to be forthcoming about the amounts they are ingesting and their alcohol and drug intakes,” says Dr. Scheinthal.
Seniors should be honest with their physicians about the medications and other substances they use.
Dr. Scheinthal also points out that it’s important for senior citizens to disclose their alcohol, drug, and controlled substance intakes so that a physician will be aware of any withdrawal symptoms.
“If a person becomes hospitalized and the attending physician does not know his patient has a drug habit, he might prescribe medication to treat the patient for being restless or jittery, without realizing the patient actually is going through withdrawal symptoms,” he says.
The following are warning signs to watch for to see if you suspect an older friend or family member might have a substance abuse problem:
- Changes in sleep patterns and/or appetite that cannot be attributed to other reasons
- Increased falling
- Frequently changing physicians or “doctor shopping” to get multiple prescriptions
- Filling prescriptions at multiple pharmacies
- New onset irritability or agitation
- Periods of confusion
- Empty liquor bottles in the garbage or recycling bin.
“Osteopathic physicians (DOs) are specifically trained to listen to their patients and help them deal with both their physical and emotional problems at any stage in their lives. If you think you or someone you know might have a problem with drugs or alcohol, talk to a DO or someone you trust to get help,” says Dr. Scheinthal.