Elderly Addicts Suffering in Silence

Sad man holding his head

There are many assumptions we make about addiction and the sorts of people who suffer from it, and in many cases we’re wrong. We may think that young people and adults suffer the most from addiction, but healthcare professionals are growing increasingly concerned about addiction among the elderly. The problem is that our assumptions lead to the older generation becoming “invisible addicts,” with friends or family members thinking nothing of an elderly relative drinking quietly at home. Just because he or she isn’t out every night raucously drinking downtown doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.

“Invisible Addicts”

Aside from our inherent assumptions, there are other reasons the elderly are becoming the “invisible addicts.” Part of the problem is a lack of screening for addiction in medical settings, according to Dr. Paul Quigley of Wellington Hospital in New Zealand. He says the people with the biggest problem are those between the ages 55 and 70. They are too young to go into residential care, and although they should be able to cope on their own, many of them can’t.

Elderly people generally have trouble with addiction for the same reasons as everybody else, such as stress or depression, but a key issue affecting them is loneliness. Some elderly people have company at home, or are able to go out and socialize, but others, especially those who have lost a spouse, are prone to feelings of loneliness. In the U.S., people often move to warmer climates to retire, and if they relocate to another state, they may lose touch with family.

Additionally, alcohol metabolism slows with age, meaning that elderly people who drink end up with a higher blood-alcohol level than they may be expecting. Seniors should limit themselves to no more than two drinks for men and one for women in a single sitting. More than seven drinks in a week is considered risky for this age group.

Increasing Numbers of Elderly Addicts

In the U.S., between 2005 and 2009, the number of people 50 and over needing substance abuse treatment increased by nearly 50 percent, and the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality estimates that this number will double by 2020, reaching 5.7 million. According to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol and prescription drug abuse among those 60 and over are two of the fastest growing health problems in the country.

The same pattern is being observed in New Zealand, where experts like Kathryn Leafe of the addiction treatment center CareNZ are recognizing the growing problem. “Over the last year, we’ve seen an increase in older people presenting to our services—about 15 percent of the 7,000 people we work with,” Leafe said.

Will Baby Boomers Overrun Rehab Centers?

If the problem continues unchecked, there is a concern that the baby boom generation, having developed alcoholism or other addictions, will flood rehabilitation centers when they reach retirement age and put too much pressure on healthcare providers. Of course, since it’s been predicted that the proportion of elderly addicts will continue to increase, investing in prevention and addiction treatment could help prevent the problem. The idea that treatment providers will be overrun by baby boomers struggling with alcoholism is perhaps a worst case scenario, but unless we do something to rectify the issue, it could be one we’ll experience.

Tackling Senior Addiction

The harsh truth is that seniors struggling with addiction aren’t invisible, we just don’t notice or pretend they don’t present a real problem. When we see an elderly parent drinking too much or using medication recreationally, we are more inclined to ignore the behavior than if our brother or sister were abusing substances. Like most addicts, elderly drinkers will try to hide the problem, but they’re only successful because we aren’t as open to seeing the truth.

Increasing screening for alcohol problems and awareness of safe drinking guidelines for seniors are a good place to start in reducing heavy drinking in this age group, but the most important thing we can do is to recognize it as a serious problem. We need to remember that our elderly relatives might be struggling with loneliness and that we need to be there for them as well as stay on the lookout for signs that our parents’ drinking has gotten out of hand.

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