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How to Recognize Substance Abuse in Seniors

More than 2.5 million elderly adults suffer from a drug (or alcohol) problem in the United States.  This statistic is staggering and shocking across the board, as we likely have a health crisis on our hands with elderly individuals abusing prescription and recreational drugs unlike ever before. This is an ongoing problem that many people may not be aware is happening, as most people assume drug addiction and abuse happens in teens and younger adults.

Why are Seniors Prone to Substance Abuse?

A common misconception of drug abuse is that all people who are misusing drugs are likely in the ‘partying’ phase of their life or using drugs to enhance those experiences in their life. People often think that drug addiction is exclusive to young adults abusing street grade drugs to have a good time or to escape reality. What people seem to forget is that there is a whole generation and group of people that are more vulnerable to becoming addicted to drugs and their addiction is likely started by perfectly legal prescriptions that are given to them by medical professionals. Of course, we are talking about seniors, who are over the age of 50.

As our bodies get older, they may become more susceptible to diseases, illnesses and sickness that may require prescription drugs to treat. These drugs can range from blood pressure medicine to pain killers to anti-nausea medication; the options are endless for those who may be suffering from life altering ailments due to their older age. An unfortunate fact is that addiction in the elderly population is incredibly common and it likely stems from the miscommunication between doctors, the elderly patient of the doctor and the patient’s family or support system. Mismanagement of medications can also contribute to the growing addiction problem, as seniors may mix medications they shouldn’t and eventually become dependent on the mixture of medicine that they have concocted in their bodies.

Additionally, it is important to remember that this is a very fragile time in their lives, as seniors are more than likely facing changes in their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual life daily. As we become older, it is natural to face more challenges and changes that leave us feeling lost, scared or anxious. Seniors may be the most susceptible to this, as they may have recently experienced an increased level of changes through out their life. Such changes and deviations from their norm include:

  • Retirement from a career that they feel gave them purpose and drive for several years.
  • Loss of a pet that they feel was a large part of their family.
  • Loss of a loved one that is around their age or may have the same illness that they have. This is especially true in seniors that are experiencing death amongst their group of friends or peers, as this seems to hit hard emotionally in most elderly individuals.
  • Feeling that he or she is losing their independence and, thus, may end up losing their home and the life that they have built for themselves.

These life altering events could be triggers for individuals to start feeling depressed, sad, anxious or lost. This could trigger their substance abuse, as they turn towards the medication that they have, or illicit drugs that they find elsewhere, to cope with the pain of change and the idea of life shifting from what they once knew to a new norm.

If an elderly individual does not have a support system around them that will help them keep track of their medications, he or she is left prone to abusing their medications, as they may be unable to keep track of their medication schedule and maintaining a healthy balance between medications. Hiring a professional caregiving to specialize in medication management and reminders ensures that an elderly individual has the proper attention that he or she needs in order to maintain a healthy and happy lifestyle, while a caregiver oversees the medication that they are taking on a daily or weekly basis. Although a caregiver through a non-medical home care company cannot physically give their clients the medications that he or she is prescribed, some of the services that a caregiver can provide in regard to medication management includes:

  • Ensuring that the medication is taken at the appropriate time, in the right dosage.
  • Ensuring that the medication is in a locked and safe place when the elderly individual does not need to have access to it.
  • Managing any pill boxes that sort out the medication to clearly lay out the daily intake.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse in Seniors?

When a senior abuses drugs (or uses alcohol with prescription medication) he or she may start to present symptoms that their family unit simply cannot ignore. Although some of these symptoms may be chalked up to old age or a direct result of their health problems, it should be taken very seriously if these signs and symptoms are ever present in elderly individuals. Symptoms of substance abuse can be hidden very well or for a long period of time, especially in seniors that may not see their friends or family very often. Signs and symptoms of drug abuse in seniors includes:

  • Memory loss, confusion and disorientation are clear signs of substance abuse that may be overlooked, as they are also a sign of an individual getting older. These symptoms indicate cognitive impairment, which is a red-flag warning sign that the individual is experience cognitive decline due to substance abuse.
  • Loss of money, especially if it is in a savings account, with no explanation.
  • Social isolation outside of their normal personality that has recently picked up or has recently become noticeable to others. For example, if an elderly individual would only socialize with others once or twice a week, but then completely cut off social interaction with others all together, that could be a red flag.
  • Asking doctors for their prescriptions to be filled early.
  • Poor hygiene, including looking disheveled or appearing messy. This could stem from dirty hair, wearing the same clothing multiple days in a row or simply not bathing.
  • Dizziness or feeling uneasy when they stand.
  • Increased tolerance to medications that they once responded well to.
  • Increased anger, mood swings, depression or anxiety.
  • Increased complaints about chronic pains and aches, especially if they are new ones that have never been addressed previously.
  • Defensiveness towards anyone who questions their habits using the substances, especially if people question if he or she has a drug problem or a problem with dependency.
  • Keeping medications by their side at all times or moving their medication stash frequently so no one can access it.

If these signs and symptoms are present in an elderly individual, it is advised that a medical professional is contacted right away, as there are serious side effects of substance abuse for seniors. Since their health is not as sharp as it once was, seniors are unable to process a high volume of prescription drugs as they once could. They could experience rapid deterioration of their organs and could lead to heart attack, stroke or even death. Senior citizens are more prone to experiencing fatal side effects from substance abuse issues than any other age group due to their already declining health. It is imperative that any sign of substance abuse is brought to the attention of their medical professionals so that they can receive the treatment and help he or she needs.

Substance abuse can cause mental, emotional and physical problems for elderly individuals. Misuse and mishandling of medications can bring serious and irreparable damage to a senior’s body, mind and soul. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, please seek help immediately by bringing this up to a medical professional. You do not have to fight this alone.


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