Older Adult Addiction
Misuse of alcohol and other drugs among men and women age 50 and older is one of the fastest-growing yet most unrecognized health problems in this country. A whopping 17 percent of older adults misuse alcohol and prescription drugs, and the number rises when we include street drugs and, in most states, marijuana. By 2020, the number of addicted older adults is expected to double to about six million.
Older adults who didn’t have a problem with alcohol or other drugs in their younger days can still find themselves addicted. They might turn to substances to as a way to deal with life changes—such as retirement or loss of a spouse or even a pet. Many older adults find themselves bored, grieving, under financial stress, lonely, or depressed. They might begin having an extra martini every night to wind down or take an extra prescription pain pill. Before long, instead of taking one pill every four hours they are taking four pills every one hour. This “prescription dyslexia” is more common than you might think.
Addiction, regardless of a person’s age, has consequences. It leads to increased hospital admissions, emergency department visits, and psychiatric hospital admissions. But older adults, who are more prone to falls and to have medical conditions exacerbated by alcohol and other drug use, are hospitalized as often for alcohol-related problems as they are for heart attacks, one of the nation’s leading killers.
Older adults are particularly susceptible to the consequences of addiction. As we age, our metabolism slows, and alcohol and other drugs stay in the system longer, giving them more time to damage organs. Our brains are more sensitive as well—one glass of wine could leave us confused a dizzy.
Notice that addiction is considered a “health problem”—not a moral failing or a sin but a problem that compromises the health and welfare of those it affects: the addict and at least five to ten family members, friends, coworkers, employers, or anyone touched by the addict’s actions.
If you suspect that an older adult in your life is having a problem with alcohol or other drugs, you’re probably right. Seek help. You can call a local treatment center, talk to a physician trained in addiction medicine (visit ABAM.net to find a specialist), talk to someone you know in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or call AA or NA directly. It’s never too late to get help for addiction.