The Hidden Secret – Alcohol and Drug Dependency of Seniors

Today there are over 76 million baby boomers that make up more than 24% of the population of the United States. As this generation ages we must pay close attention to problems of alcohol and drug abuse.

One out of five adults over 55 years of age struggles with prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications or alcohol; they are the largest consumer base for pharmaceutical companies. The signs of dependency in this age group often go unnoticed by friends, family and healthcare professionals because they include symptoms that are often blamed on “old age” such as insomnia, poor concentration and coordination, confusion and depression. Seniors often do not seek help on their own and that can cause major physical and psychological problems down the road.

Adults who drink excessive amounts of alcohol or use drugs inappropriately put themselves at a great risk for serious health issues, such as cardiovascular, liver and neurological diseases. Also, older adults are more likely to have health problems that are increased or exacerbated by alcohol such as high blood pressure, memory loss and mood disorders. In fact, 70 percent of older adults’ hospital admissions are for illness and accidents related to alcohol.

Alcohol and substance abuse are especially hard to diagnose because one-third of the people with problems did not abuse alcohol in their earlier years. They are often no longer in the workforce where poor performance could reveal a problem; many times they live alone. The World Health Organization describes three types of elderly drinkers:

  • Early-onset drinkers who have ongoing problems that shorten their life span.
  • Late-onset drinkers who drink later in life, in response to grief, loneliness and pain.
  • Intermittent drinkers who use alcohol occasionally and sometimes drink to excess, causing problems.

Studies show that not only are adults living longer these days, but they are also drinking more alcohol at a time when physical changes due to aging cause them to be less tolerant to it.

It is also very important for an older adult to talk with his/her physician about the harmful interactions of mixing alcohol with medications. This includes over-the-counter medications. Aging affects absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion. Symptoms to look for in older adults include: observable changes in sleep patterns and unusual fatigue; changes in mood; jerky eye movements; seizures; unexplained complaints about chronic pain or vision problems; poor hygiene and self-neglect; unexplained nausea or vomiting; and slurred speech.

Getting Help for an Older Adult

Speak with your loved one if you think he or she may have a substance abuse problem. When speaking with older adults use the following tips regarding specific addiction and treatment options:

  1. Talk about your worries over their substance use when they are alert.
  2. Share information regarding the effects of alcohol and/or drugs on their health.
  3. Ask to go to doctor visits with them or contact the doctor yourself if needed.
  4. Suggest alcohol and drug-free activities.
  5. Encourage counseling and offer to drive them to and from these meetings.
  6. Be supportive by inviting and encouraging them to spend time with family and friends and to participate in extracurricular activities.
  7. Help them seek treatment, if necessary.

Please check these resources for additional information on older adult dependency. (Substance Abuse & Mental Health) (National Institute of Drug Abuse) (National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism) (Alcoholics Anonymous) (Narcotics Anonymous)

*Special appreciation is given to Donna McGrane, Ridgeview Institute, for sharing valuable resources that contributed to this article.


From Hurley Elder Care Law

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