Misuse and abuse of drugs and alcohol among the elderly is one of the fastest-growing health problems in the United States, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), yet it can often be mistaken for normal aging behavior.
The statistics are alarming: according to The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., 2.5 million older adults have an alcohol or drug problem; while a SAMHSA report shows that the use of illicit drugs, combining drugs with alcohol and the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals, result in an average of nearly 300 emergency room visits nationwide each day for those aged 65 and older.
Despite these disturbing trends, substance abuse among the elderly often goes unrecognized and untreated. According to “The Tough Talk: Aging Parents and Substance Abuse,” a new survey commissioned by WellCare Health Plans, Inc., adult children of elderly parents know very little about the drugs and alcohol their parents consume, and three-quarters say it’s possible that they may not even know if their parent had a substance abuse problem, likely mistaking the signs — such as slurred speech, dozing off and confusion — for normal behaviors of aging.
“While family members may not feel equipped to identify an abuse problem, they are often the ones who can best spot changes in behaviors that could indicate one exists,” said Kevin Middleton, Psy.D., vice president, behavioral health, WellCare. “Given the serious consequences that overuse or abuse of drugs and alcohol can have on seniors, it’s important to look for those signs and also ask questions that will help determine if and what kind of help is needed.”
Dr. Middleton advises those with aging loves ones to be aware of the following:
- Life Changes Can Trigger Abuse: Retirement, the death of a spouse or dear friend, the loss of a pet and other significant life events are times when the elderly are most likely to begin misusing or abusing drugs and alcohol.
- Signs of a Potential Problem: Many older people will hide their problem out of shame, and while substance abuse can mimic symptoms of other diseases, always consider the possibility of abuse if there are any major changes in behavior, such as loss of interest in hobbies, activities or socializing, as well as changes in appetite and sleeping habits. Other signs to be aware of are noticeable memory loss, slurred speech and confusion.
- Asking Questions is the First Step: At times when loved ones appear sober and alert, start asking questions about their use of drugs and alcohol and if they think they have a problem. Speak frankly about your concerns and the risks of substance abuse, but also be sympathetic to the difficulties with which they’re dealing.
- Seek Help: If you do suspect a substance abuse problem, contact his or her health care provider and discuss the best approach for getting appropriate treatment.
For more tips and information on managing substance abuse for aging parents, visit WellCare’s blog at tinyurl.com/ycu6e7g2.
Identifying substance abuse can be challenging, particularly when it comes to the elderly. However, addressing the issue quickly is critical. If you’ve detected signs of a problem, start by asking the right questions.