Addiction and Seniors: Under-Diagnosed and Under-Treated

The number of aging adults with a substance use disorder is expected to reach 5.7 million by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Unfortunately, only a fraction of people who need help for an addiction receive treatment, and this is especially true for seniors.

Why Seniors Are Under-Diagnosed

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services gives us a number of reasons why addiction is under-diagnosed in aging populations, including rushed doctor’s visits, doctors attributing symptoms of addiction to other health problems, and different attitudes of physicians toward older adults.

Additionally, older adults have different attitudes toward substance abuse and addiction than younger generations. Aging Americans often think of addiction as a moral failing, or they don’t see any problem at all with heavy substance abuse. Because of the cultural norms they grew up with, seniors are more likely to hide their substance abuse, believing it’s a private matter. They’re also less likely to admit to having mental health symptoms–which often occur with addiction–because of outdated attitudes about mental illness.

Why Seniors Are Under-Treated

Likewise, seniors’ attitudes about addiction treatment may prevent them from seeking help if they believe they have a problem. They may worry about what others will think, and they may worry that they’re too old for treatment to work. Many seniors who have a long history of substance abuse or addiction may be afraid to face a life without alcohol or drugs.

The adult children of seniors often recognize a drug or alcohol problem but don’t know how to approach the subject. Some may believe that stopping a loved one’s drug or alcohol use at an advanced age is pointless and may do more harm than good.

The truth is, treatment works at any age, and it can help seniors find purpose, meaning, and enjoyment in a life without drugs or alcohol. Treatment can also dramatically improve their physical and mental health.

Signs of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults

Substance abuse is the act of using drugs or alcohol in a way that causes negative consequences, such as relationship problems, physical or mental health issues, and legal or financial troubles. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug or alcohol use and the inability to stop using despite these negative consequences.

Signs of substance abuse and addiction in older adults include:

  • Drinking or using drugs in secret.
  • Observing a ritual of drinking.
  • Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed.
  • Drinking even though it’s known to interact with medications they’re taking.
  • Slurred speech or glassy eyes.
  • Hostility or paranoia.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Health complaints that aren’t supported by a diagnosis.
  • Memory loss or confusion.
  • Withdrawal from friends and family.
  • Expressing anger, defensiveness, or denial that there’s a problem when confronted.

How to Get Help

If you believe your aging loved one may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, the best thing you can do is learn everything you can about addiction and then try to talk to your loved one about it. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are good places to start. You may also consider asking your loved one’s physician to intervene.

It’s never too late to get help for substance abuse or addiction, and professional help can vastly improve your or your older loved one’s quality of life and sense of wellbeing.