Recognizing Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults – And How to Help

Authored by Ashley Lipman;   Photo Source:

There’s a misinformed mindset around alcoholism and seniors. Many people erroneously believe that it’s not as great of a concern during the golden years or that the ship on treatment has long since sailed.

The effects of substance abuse and addiction are exacerbated during the senior years and can have devastating consequences. Here are some signs of substance use disorders in older adults and how you can help.

Trauma or Mental Health Disorders

Seniors who have experienced trauma or have an existing mental health disorder are more likely to experience substance misuse. According to Behavioral Health Centers, many veterans with PTSD turn to illicit substances as a coping mechanism. Furthermore, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 50% of people with substance use disorders either have an existing mental illness or will develop one.

If the senior in your life has experienced trauma or mental health issues, it’s important to be on the lookout for developing substance dependencies. It’s also important to look at recent events that could trigger a negative emotional response. For example, a senior who has recently lost a spouse or close friend may turn to substances. Similarly, a senior who learns about a medical issue or has their driver’s license revoked is at risk.

Increase in Instability and Falls

One of the significant challenges with identifying substance abuse in senior populations is the similarities with other age-related illnesses or problems. Seniors naturally lose balance and coordination as they age, increasing their risk of falling. This issue is exacerbated by alcohol use which further decreases stability— especially when certain prescription medications are also in use.

While falling over may not seem like a significant concern, it’s incredibly dangerous for older adults. Three million older adults are treated in emergency rooms for fall-related accidents each year, resulting in 32,000 deaths and 300,000 debilitating hip fractures. As someone ages, recovery takes longer, and surgery becomes riskier.

Increased instability can be related solely to hearing issues or medications, but it’s worth considering the bigger picture.

Increased Confusion or Memory Loss

Confusion and memory loss are other senior-related issue that gets overlooked or brushed aside. While some decreased cognition is natural with age, it should be relatively minor; there’s a difference between forgetting something that happened a long time ago and a conversation from last week.

Another issue with substance-related confusion or memory loss is that it often gets confused with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and vice versa. Many people mistakenly think their senior loved one is drinking too much when there’s a serious memory disorder affecting them. Unfortunately, lifelong alcohol use also has a correlation with the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

If you notice your loved one is forgetting more or struggles to focus and communicate, speak to a medical professional. It’s worth exploring memory testing to rule out an underlying disorder while evaluating their relationship with substances.

Lack of Self-Care or Hygiene

Seniors with substance abuse disorders often stop taking care of themselves. If you notice your senior relative isn’t showering or changing their clothes, it’s worth having a conversation to rule out accessibility issues. Similarly, if they aren’t eating or taking medication, there’s a problem.

Social withdrawal also falls under this category. Social interactions are essential for healthy aging. If your loved one is losing interest in their hobbies and social events, it could indicate a mental health disorder (depression, for example) or substance misuse. Assess this issue through the lens of other factors on this list.

Exacerbation of Medical Issues

If your loved one has health concerns that aren’t improving with treatment, substance abuse could be a factor. Alcohol, for example, negatively impacts the efficacy of several prescription medications. Continuous issues with blood pressure, cholesterol, liver function, and gut health could also indicate an underlying issue. 

How to Help

If you notice any of these concerning issues, you’re likely wondering what to do about it. Have a respectful conversation with your loved one and highlight your concerns. Try to remain judgment free and speak from a place of love, focusing on their health.

Seeking treatment is ultimately their choice, but you can provide resources to explore if they’re interested. It’s natural to face resistance during these conversations, but try to stay calm and neutral. When in doubt, talk to a healthcare professional.

About our Author:  Ashley Lipman is a content marketing specialist and an award-winning writer who discovered her passion for providing knowledge to readers worldwide on topics closest to her heart – all things digital. Since her first high school award in Creative Writing, she continues to deliver awesome content through various niches touching the digital sphere.

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