Substance abuse among the elderly (60-years and older) is one of the fastest growing health problems facing the country in recent years. Despite the fact the number of elderly persons caught in the web of addiction increases over time, the problem remains under-diagnosed, underrated and misunderstood. Alcohol and prescription drug abuse affects 17% of adults 60-years old and up in the United States.
Because of inadequate knowledge, incomplete research data, and rushed office visits, health care providers often fail to notice substance abuse and maltreatment among elder adults. Diagnosis may be problematic because signs of substance abuse in older persons sometimes mimic symptoms of other medicinal and behavioral disorders shared among this population, such as diabetes, dementia, and depression. Often drug assessments of new medications do not involve older subjects, so a clinician has no way of calculating or recognizing an unfavorable reaction or unexpected psychoactive result.
Other aspects responsible for the scarcity of awareness to substance abuse include the existing older partner ‘s disapproval of and humiliation about use and misuse of substances, along with a unwillingness to seek professional help for what many in this age group deem a private topic. Many relatives of older individuals with substance use conditions, particularly their adult children, are also embarrassed about the problem and decide not to address it. Ageism also adds to the problem and to the silence: Younger adults often intuitively assign different quality-of-life values to older adults. There is an unspoken but ubiquitous notion that it’s not worth considering older adults for substance abuse syndromes. Behavior considered a challenge in younger adults does not arouse the same necessity for care among older adults. Along with the sense that alcohol or substance abuse problems cannot be successfully handled in older adults, there is the assumption that healing for this population is a waste of health care resources.
These stances are not only heartless and barbaric, they rest on misunderstandings. Most older adults can and do live through self-reliantly: Only 4.6 percent of adults over 65 are nursing home or private home care residents. Additionally, Grandmother’s cocktails aren’t cheering her up: Older adults who “self-medicate” with alcohol or prescription drugs are more likely to describe themselves as lonely and admit lower life satisfaction. Older women with alcohol problems are more likely to have had a problem-drinking spouse, to have lost their partners to death, to have faced depression, and to have been injured in falls.
The result of all of this is that the certainty is that misuse and abuse of alcohol and other drugs take an excessive toll on distressed older adults than on younger adults. In addition to the psychosocial problems that are unique to older adults, aging also accompanies biomedical adjustments that influence the results that alcohol and drugs have on the body. Alcohol abuse, for example, may hasten the normal decline in physiological functioning that appears with age. In addition, alcohol may elevate older adults’ already high hazard for injury, illness, and socioeconomic degeneration.