Alcoholism & Drug Abuse in Senior Citizens: Signs, Symptoms, and How You Can Help

Although it isn’t a widely discussed topic, alcohol and drug abuse affect more senior citizens than you might imagine. 

Put yourself in their shoes: children grow up and move out, health and mobility gradually deteriorate, and long-time friendships grow fewer and further apart. 

On top of that, many senior citizens might lose a loved one, get relocated to a smaller home, or get removed from a particular job or responsibility they cherish. 

Things change as we age, and with those changes comes a new set of challenges. 

Challenges in health, lifestyle, family obligations, and work roles. If these challenges aren’t tackled with a reliable support system, they can lead to emotional stress, loneliness, and hopelessness. 

And left unchecked, all of these feelings are a recipe for drug or alcohol abuse. 

As an adult with an aging parent, it’s essential to understand any tell-tale signs of abuse so you can address it in a responsible, effective manner. 

Many signs of alcoholism and drug dependence are different in older adults than they are in younger people. Namely, when it comes to senior citizens, abuse is often hidden, overlooked, and misdiagnosed. 

Signs of abuse often occur in broader patterns. One symptom may snowball into another, fueling additional problems down the road. 

If you have an older parent you are regularly checking in on, keep an eye out for these common warning signs:

  • Drinking alone or in secrecy
  • Hostility or depression when talking about drinking 
  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Making excuses for drinking such as to relax, deal with stress or feel normal
  • Making a ritual of drinking around dinner time
  • A loss of interest in hobbies
  • Drinking despite warning labels on prescription drugs
  • Empty liquor and beer bottles around the house or in the garbage
  • Chronic and unsupported health complaints.

While alcoholism and drug abuse are harmful at any age, they are especially damaging when they manifest in the elderly. 

The risks of injuries, harmful medication interactions, and general physical effects skyrocket as we age, leading to more jarring statistics:

  • Over 2.5 million senior citizens have an alcohol or drug problem in the United States
  • More than 6% of elderly hospitalizations are directly tied to alcohol or drug problems 
  • Widowers 75 and older have the highest rate of alcoholism out of any demographic in the United States
  • Almost 50% of nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems 
  • Hospitalization rates for alcohol-related problems are about the same as they are for heart attacks 
  • Nearly 17 million tranquilizer prescriptions are issued to older adults each year 

By increasing awareness of this widespread problem, we can form a response that leaves our elders healthier and happier in the long-term.

Prescription Drug Prevalence in Seniors

According to DrugAbuse.gov, persons aged 65 and older comprise only 13 percent of the population, yet account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription medications in the United States. 

Part of this is due to accessibility. Senior citizens are much more likely to be prescribed long-term medications and often require multiple prescriptions. With how necessary they are for many seniors, they’re at significant risk for prescription drug abuse and addiction. 

In addition to prescription medications, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and dietary supplements are also quite common. These aren’t as dangerous but can lead to unwanted behaviors that snowball into other dependencies. 

Why Diagnosing Senior Substance Abuse is Challenging

One of the most significant issues facing older adults with substance abuse disorders is that it is difficult to diagnose from the outside looking in. 

Due to a lack of awareness, limited research data, and quick doctor visits, many health care providers overlook alcohol and drug abuse among their older patients. 

One of the reasons it is easy to overlook is because symptoms look like many other medical conditions. A doctor might think high blood pressure or drowsiness is the result of another medical or behavioral condition, such as diabetes, dementia, and depression. 

Another common reason for misdiagnoses in elderly patients is the stigma and shame surrounding the use and misuse of substances. This fuels a reluctance in the elderly population to seek professional help for what many consider a private matter. At the end of the day, admitting they need help requires surrendering a degree of control, something many senior citizens do not surrender easily. 

In addition to seniors brushing the problem off to the side, many family members enable them. It’s quite common for relatives of older individuals with alcoholism and drug dependence to be ashamed of the problem, which leads to inaction. 

Finally, there is a widespread, unspoken assumption that it’s not worth treating older adults for substance abuse disorders. Many believe that behaviors are too difficult to change after people reach a certain age. 

While it’s true that old habits might be difficult to break, it is still worth the effort. Curbing or stopping substance abuse can yield years of quality livelihood in some instances. 

Plus, some of the behavioral patterns in senior citizens develop when they are older. When that is the case, it is even easier to reverse the abuse patterns and return your aging parent to what made them healthy and active in the first place. 

Treatment Options for Elderly Substance Abuse

After you and your aging parent have identified the problem, you can begin working toward treatment options. 

During this phase, treatment options should focus on communicating with patients in an empathic, respectful manner. Place emphasis on clear communications and that into account any cognitive changes associated with aging, both normal and abnormal.

Consider that many older adults won’t be aware of the risks they’re taking by using and abusing substances. They might be using them as much as they always have and do not understand the increased risk they have due to their aging. With that in mind, any information you can provide about how these abuses put them at risk will be extremely beneficial. 

The first conversations around this topic are never easy, but they are essential to moving your parents toward effective treatment options. 

Once they have decided it is in their best interest to seek professional help, consider these solutions: 

  • Addiction support groups can give older people a network of others who have been through what they are experiencing. This can help them find fellowship and support from other people dealing with the same difficulties.
  • Therapists can also be beneficial for battling addiction, helping senior citizens examine the root of the problem and steering them toward a solution.
  • Finally, addiction rehab is another option for seniors who are dealing with serious substance use disorders.