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Substance Abuse and Seniors


By Karli Rymer, Wellspring Center for Prevention intern

Growing older brings on many changes in life. This includes changes in health, lifestyle, family obligations, work roles, and sources of support. These changes the elderly face are accompanied by physical pain, stress, loneliness, and loss of mobility. It is no wonder why elderly people may turn to alcohol and drugs in later life. The very real struggles of aging may impel seniors towards substance abuse or exacerbate a problem that has been developing for years. In fact, there are 2.5 million older adults with an alcohol or drug problem.

The severity of the substance abuse and elderly issue rests in some staggering statistics. Approximately 14% of elderly emergency hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems as well as 20% of elderly psychiatric hospital admissions. Almost 50% of nursing home residents have alcohol related problems. Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S. Tranquilizers, the most commonly misused and abused of prescription medications, account for 17 million prescriptions prescribed for older adults each year. Lastly, older adults are hospitalized as often for alcoholic related problems as they are for heart attacks.

The signs of alcoholism and drug dependence present themselves differently in older people than in younger people. Abuse among the elderly is often hidden, overlooked, or unidentified and misdiagnosed. However, some signs that may indicate a drinking or drug problem include solitary or secretive drinking, a loss of interest in hobbies or activities, drinking in spite of warning labels on prescription drugs, slurred speech, change in personal appearance, chronic and unsupported health complaints, hostility or depression, memory loss and confusion, and more.

Although alcohol and drug abuse is harmful at any age, it is never more harmful than on the elderly. The impact of the alcohol and drugs is more severe, the occurrences and risks of harmful medication interaction is much higher, and the general physical effects of substance abuse are more debilitating. The reality is that alcohol and drug problems, specifically prescription drug abuse, among older adults is one of the fastest growing health problems in the nation and we need a better understanding, sense of awareness, and response to combat this problem.

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