Alcoholism and Drug Abuse

Aging baby boomers face rise in later-life substance abuse

Alcoholism and drug abuse in seniors is becoming a major medical concern in North America. As the baby boom generation turns 65 or older we can expect to see a rise in alcoholism and drug abuse in seniors.

According to the Canadian Centre On Substance Abuse, alcohol is the most commonly used substance among seniors aged 65 and older.

Seniors may fee isolated and often have lost a spouse, experienced financial instability or abuse from a caregiver and begin masking their problems through substance abuse.

Typically, seniors with substance abuse problems go undetected because most symptoms can be attributed to getting older. These sign include:

  • memory problems
  • confusion
  • lack of self care
  • depression
  • falls
  • sleep problems

There are two types of elderly alcohol abusers: those who have been abusing alcohol for years and are now 65 or older; and those who begin abusing alcohol in later life.

Alcohol has a higher absorption rate in the elderly, meaning if an elderly person was to drink the same amount as a younger person it would cause a greater degree of intoxication because, like women, the elderly have a harder time absorbing the alcohol.

There are complications associated with alcohol abuse, the most common being:

  • liver disease
  • chronic obstructive lung disease
  • peptic ulcer
  • psoriasis
  • falls
  • mental impairment

Drug Abuse Among Seniors

Alcoholism isn’t the only substance abuse issue facing seniors today. The incidence of illicit drug use among older adults is also skyrocketing.

A 2009 study by the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 4.3 million adults aged 50 or older had used drugs in the past year. For those under 65, the most common drug of choice was marijuana, but for seniors over 65 the non-medical use of prescription drugs was cited as the most common problem.

Meanwhile, another study found that admissions to drug rehab facilities for seniors was also on the rise – up 106% for men over 55 and 119% for women between 1995-2002.

Treatment for seniors with substance abuse is different than for younger people. Traditional addiction treatment programs are used to treat people with substance abuse but the topics discussed in those programs may not be relevant for seniors and the speed of treatment may be too fast.

Substance abuse rehab programs have been developed for senior citizens to specifically address those issue relating to addiction in the elderly. These facilities include staff members who are certified in addiction medicine as well as general geriatric care.

Seniors with substance abuse problems require individualized treatment through support services and in more extreme cases there are substance abuse programs for seniors.

Learn More

The National Institute on Aging provides a free booklet, Older Adults and Alcohol, that answers many common questions and lists support programs.

Alcoholics Anonymous remains a dependable source of ongoing support. For a more self-directed approach to recovery, try SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers an online facility locator that helps you find programs in your area that provide substance abuse treatment and education.