Getting Help

By Tawny Maya McCray

January 12, 2018 5 min read

Grandma and grandpa don't typically come to mind when we think of addiction. But prescription drug and alcohol abuse among people older than 50 is a rapidly growing epidemic in our country.

According to a Unity Rehab article, the rate of accidental overdoses among this generation is higher than that of people between ages 25 and 44 for the first time in history.

The article explains that baby boomers had the highest substance abuse rates as teens and young adults among any of the other living generations, due to the hippie Woodstock era of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Widespread substance use and intoxication were part of the social norm, says Brenda Iliff, executive director of Hazelden in Naples, a facility that is part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a leading nonprofit provider of addiction treatment and recovery resources, with 17 sites across the country. Iliff says they are seeing more and more patients from the Baby Boom and even earlier generations.

"For example, at Hazelden in Naples, Florida, almost half of our patients are now 50 years and older, including many who are older than 60," she says.

Some reasons for this new crop of addiction, Iliff says, stems from the fact that as we age, we all become more vulnerable to pain and other health-related conditions that may prompt pharmaceutical interventions.

Lifestyle changes as we age can also contribute to substance abuse. Risk factors for older adults may include loss of structure or relationships, acute loneliness, surgery, chronic pain, depression or anxiety.

"More older adults may also be using prescription drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for today's heightened stress levels, with increased work hours, political unrest, a widening income gap and a never-ending flow of online information to worry about," Iliff says.

When dealing with the older population, there are also things like cognitive impairment and memory loss that can affect people's ability to take their medications as prescribed. And, Iliff points out, while most physicians avoid prescribing medications that are dangerous in combination, some older adults have multiple physicians and can end up with medications that should not be taken concurrently.

As we age, we also metabolize medications or substances differently, and it can take the body longer to rid itself of toxins. That can, in turn, increase the risk of overuse and even overdose.

According to an article on Addiction Center's website, there are challenges to identifying addiction in the elderly. Alcohol or drug abuse may actually mimic symptoms of other medical or mental health disorders, such as diabetes, dementia or depression. This makes it easy for doctors who encounter an older patient to chalk up declining mental or physical health simply to "old age."

The article states that some signs of elderly drug abuse to look for include memory problems, changes in sleeping habits, unexplained bruises, irritability, sadness, depression, unexplained chronic pain, changes in eating habits, wanting to be alone often, failing to bathe or keep clean, losing touch with loved ones and lack of interest in usual activities.

Once addiction is identified, it is critical to seek out a treatment center that has specific experience working with seniors facing addiction. The program should also offer case management services, as individuals older than 65 typically lack the social support required throughout recovery. These case management services will provide the elderly with access to medical, psychiatric and social resources to allow for a healthy lifestyle to continue after treatment.

Iliff says that unfortunately, only 1 in 10 people with a substance use disorder receive professional help.

"We need more older Americans in recovery to stand up and speak out and provide hope to those who are still struggling," she says. "Betty Ford was 60 when she went to treatment and began her recovery from addiction to prescription opioids and alcohol. She remains a shining example for other older Americans."

Iliff is right when she says more needs to be done to educate people on safer alternatives for preserving their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

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