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Aging and Addiction: A Guide for Family Members

Alcohol and substance abuse among seniors is a subject many would prefer to avoid, yet it is one of the most overlooked health issues of our time. Millions of older Americans have developed treatable chemical dependencies that go undetected because their symptoms mimic other disorders associated with aging.

The tragedy for many of these older adults is that they don't receive treatment. Instead, they experience a precipitous decline in health and quality of life that might otherwise have been identified and reversed.

Recognizing the Problem in a Loved One

Aging has its share of challenges, to be sure, but when the health of a loved one seems to be in a downward spiral, and there is no other diagnosed condition, a secret dependency or addiction may be involved.

When assessing a family member, allow for the common complaints of aging, but ask yourself if this is 'normal' for your loved one. Be alert for clusters of symptoms that can include: sleep problems, memory or cognitive loss, shakiness, bruises, haggard appearance, neglected hygiene, anxiety or depression, inability to concentrate, and self-isolating behavior.

Any one of these should be cause for concern, but two or more in combination should be your red flag.

The Accidental Addict

Many older adults become dependent on psychotropic medications like tranquilizers, anti-depressants, and Benzodiazepines for anxiety. Patients may begin to 'self-prescribe,' taking more of the drug for the same or a heightened effect, and then doctor-shop to obtain medications.

High doses, interactions with other meds and drinking at the same time can be highly dangerous practices.

Alcohol and Late Onset Addiction

Stressful or painful life transitions such as retirement or the loss of a spouse can result in unhealthy coping behaviors. In these conditions, a habit of social drinking developed at a younger age can escalate to a dependency.

For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the diminishing quantity of liver enzymes, older adults do not metabolize drugs or alcohol as efficiently as they did when they were younger. Over 70% of all hospital admissions of adults aged 60+ are related to problems with alcohol or medications.

Family Intervention

Spouses and loved ones should approach older adults with care and respect, choosing a time when the person is sober or lucid. Many people find the idea of alcoholism or addiction shameful, so it is best to avoid words like "addict."

Medical conditions are common among seniors, and conversation may include these concerns as potential consequences of their alcohol or medication abuse. Some families find the help of a professional interventionist to be valuable. If a suspected problem has not yet become full-blown addiction, a brief intervention by a trusted physician is often successful.

Treatment for Older Adults

Successful treatment of addiction in seniors recognizes generational values and emphasizes respect. Many people age 65+ were taught never to air their "dirty laundry" and to rely entirely upon themselves. Reaching out to others for help may not come as easily for a senior as it might for a younger adult. Additionally, it's helpful to remember that older adults, like all of us, are most comfortable with age group peers.

Treatment of seniors also includes a slower detoxification process. A multidisciplinary care plan may include medical monitoring, psychological, spiritual and wellness care, and ongoing Twelve Step group support.

To learn more about senior addiction issues, or for additional resources and contacts, click here.

Carol Colleran Carol Colleran is a pioneer of older adult addiction treatment at Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, and led the development of the Life Stages Track for Boomer program. She is co-author of Aging and Addiction: Helping Older Adults Overcome Alcohol or Medication Dependence

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