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By Wellspring Staff
Growing older brings on many changes in life, including changes in health, lifestyle, family obligations, work roles, and sources of support. These are often accompanied by physical pain, undue stress, prolonged loneliness, and loss of mobility. As a result, many elderly people have turned to alcohol and drugs later in their lives. The very real trials and tribulations of aging may steer seniors toward substance misuse or exacerbate a problem that has developed for years. According to the NCDAS, the drug-related death rate for users over 50 increases by 3% each year.

Roughly 1 in 25 adults (age 57-85) are at risk of major drug dependence based on previous opioid use. Additionally, about 65% of people 65 and older reported high-risk drinking in the past year. Unlike the previous two substances, marijuana has only recently emerged as a substance putting the elderly at risk, with the number of people 65 and older using marijuana rising by 18%

With all this information, it’s clear substance misuse is on the rise among the older population. Here’s why it’s such a serious issue.

Why substance misuse is so dangerous in seniors

Although alcohol and drug misuse is harmful at any age, the impact is more severe, the occurrences and risks of harmful medication interaction is much higher, and the general physical effects of substance misuse are more debilitating for seniors. In fact, alcohol and drug problems, specifically prescription drug misuse, among older adults is one of the fastest-growing health problems in the nation. To combat this problem, we need to cultivate a better understanding, sense of awareness, and response to the issue.

Risk factors for substance misuse in the elderly

There are several risk factors that may contribute to substance misuse in the elderly. These can include chronic pain, mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, social isolation, retirement, and other life changes. Retirement can also be a significant life change that can lead to feelings of loneliness or boredom, which may increase the risk of substance misuse. By exploring these risk factors, we can gain a deeper understanding of why substance misuse is on the rise among the older population.

  • Chronic pain: Many seniors experience chronic pain, which can lead to the use and misuse of prescription painkillers. Chronic pain can also make it difficult to engage in physical activity or social events, which may increase the risk of substance misuse.
  • Mental health issues: Seniors may be more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, which can increase the risk of substance misuse. These issues may be related to social isolation, chronic illness, or other factors.
  • Social isolation: Seniors who are socially isolated or lack social support may be more likely to turn to substance misuse as a way of coping with loneliness or boredom.
  • Retirement: Retirement can be a significant life change that may increase the risk of substance misuse. Seniors who feel unfulfilled or bored in retirement may be more likely to turn to substance misuse to fill the void.
  • Loss of loved ones: The loss of loved ones, including spouses and friends, can be a major stressor for seniors and may increase the risk of substance misuse.
  • Changes in living situation: Seniors who experience a change in their living situation, such as moving to a new home or entering a nursing home, may be more likely to turn to substance misuse as a way of coping with the stress and upheaval.
  • Financial strain: Seniors who experience financial strain, such as high medical bills or a lack of retirement savings, may be more likely to turn to substance misuse as a way of coping with the stress.

These are just a few of the key risk factors that may contribute to substance misuse in the elderly. By understanding these risk factors, we can better identify and address substance misuse among seniors and work to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Signs of substance misuse in the elderly

  • Frequent injuries: Because alcohol impairs both cognition and mobility, unexpected injuries can happen If your  senior loved one has multiple cuts, bruises, or other injuries, this could be the first telltale sign of substance misuse. 
  • An overabundance of empty beer, wine, or liquor bottles: A plethora of alcohol or pill bottles, whether they’re scattered around their living space or piled high in the recycling, indicates more concrete evidence of dangerous levels of substance misuse. If you see these signs, make sure to speak to the elder about whom you are worried immediately and seek out professional help at your discretion. 
  • Displaying signs of cognitive impairment: Another warning sign of substance misuse is cognitive impairment, which includes symptoms like forgetfulness, unsteadiness, confusion, and memory loss.
  • Unpredictable mood swings: This sign appears when you engage the senior directly. If their alterations in mood seem far outside the ordinary, you might want to seek professional help to identify and support them through their substance misuse issues before the misuse entrenches itself too deeply inside them. 

The impact of substance misuse on caregivers

Substance misuse not only affects the elderly person struggling with addiction, but also their caregivers. Caregivers may experience stress, financial strain, and emotional burden as a result of their loved one’s substance misuse. Providing resources and support for caregivers is essential to help them cope with these challenges. This may include counseling, respite care, and education on how to support their loved one through the recovery process.

Types of substances misused by seniors

Here are some of the most commonly misused substances by seniors:

  • Prescription medication: In spite of numerous warnings and thorough FDA trials and approval processes, prescription medications can also cause severe impairment and subsequent misuse. Some of these risks include accidental misuse of prescription drugs and worsening the condition of existing mental health issues.. 
  • Alcohol: Alcohol is by far the most ubiquitously misused substance by those 65 and older. That is because it has been legal and most available the longest of the misuse-prone substances. Many of the admissions of substance misuse disorder in the United States include alcohol. 
  • Marijuana: Whether it is smoked or consumed in edible form, marijuana poses many risks for seniors citizens of all spades. Although it is now being prescribed medically for those with conditions such as chronic pain or PTSD, a lack of education of quantity control has led many to overuse marijuana to dangerous degrees. Therefore, if a senior who is dear to you is using marijuana for medicinal purposes, make sure you or an edlerly care professional keeps a close eye on their dosage. 
  • Nicotine: Similar to marijuana, nicotine is most often smoked or vaped. Nevertheless, nicotine is far more addictive than some of the other substances seniors most frequently misuse. 

If you think your senior loved one is struggling with substance misuse, contact Wellspring Center for Prevention to learn more about a number of programs dedicated to seniors that can assist with promoting healthy decisions, creating a healthy environment, and engaging them in education towards a positive lifestyle.

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