Substance Abuse Among the Elderly: Spotting the Red Flags


For most of us, we often view our parents with rose-colored glasses. No matter how old we get, we sometimes revert to being their babies when we are around them. In our mind, they can never do wrong.

However, this belief can be harmful in the sense that we dismiss their feelings of isolation, loneliness, stress, boredom, depression, and chronic pain. People think that these are but the expected consequences of old age.

The instinct of parents to avoid bothering their kids about their own problems also contribute to this hidden menace.

Mountain Springs Recovery recently at a presentation discussed a report which was a 2014 research piece titled “Substance Abuse Among Older Adults,” showed that alcohol remains the most commonly abused substance among adults 65 years old and older. To be fair, the incidence of alcohol abuse disorder only occurs at 1.2% among older adults. But the figures soar to 22% when they are in healthcare.

Meanwhile, 1.7% of older adults are said to be hooked on drugs and painkiller opioids. In fact, heroin use has increased to 23 percent in 2015 from 11 percent in 2011.

You might say that the percentage is too insignificant to be a cause of worry. But those figures do not tell the whole picture. The fact is that your parents are not likely to seek help with their substance abuse problem, and they are not likely to admit they have a problem in the first place.

In fact, experts agree that the figures are somewhat misleading, especially since not a lot of research is focused on substance abuse among the elderly.

How Much is Too Much?

Fortunately, the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the American Geriatrics Society released a guideline for the recommended consumption.

Reportedly, older adults should not drink more than seven standard drinks per week, which translates to a 12-oz beer or 5-oz of wine.  It should also be noted that those who are on maintenance medication should never drink alcohol but this danger is largely ignored.

Nevertheless, the study found that between 10 percent and 50 percent of older adults exceed the recommended alcohol consumption guideline. The number rises for adults 75 years and older. Those who exceed the recommended guidelines are much more likely to develop a drinking problem later.

Who are at risk of substance abuse?

1. Those who are in healthcare

2. Those who suffer from chronic pain

3. Those who are living alone

4. Childhood trauma

5. Those who suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder

6. Those with previous experience with substance abuse

7. Those who are forced to retire from a job they love

8. Death in the family

9. Conflict in the family

10. Stress

11. Decline in health

Because their metabolism is slower, they develop a tolerance for alcohol much faster. Also, alcohol tends to stay in their system much longer.

Spotting the Red Flags

You know how old people can be very stubborn. And being figures of authority, it’s difficult to confront them when they can easily lash out.

It’s important that you know the symptoms of substance abuse so you can do something about it:

1. They figure into accidents more than usual

2. Bruises and cuts appear on their faces, bodies, and limbs

3. Slurred speech

4. They appear spaced out

5. They become very talkative and hyperactive

6. Depression

7. They forget about their hygiene

8. They experience sleep disturbances

9. They are losing or gaining weight

10. They push you away and want to be alone most of the time

11. They forget to drink their maintenance medicines

12. The stink of alcohol most of the time

13. They suffer from extreme mood swings

14. They lose their memory fast (if not explained by dementia or old age)

A sudden change in behavior is also a red flag. Admittedly, these symptoms are difficult to identify because they can be explained by some other cause. For instance, a just-widowed 68-year-old is expected to suffer chronic sadness and weakness. Alcohol or drugs, however, will magnify those feelings so it can quickly spiral out of control if not monitored.

What to Do with a Problem Parent?

The next step is to get help. As already said, it’s not going to be easy. Fortunately, your case is not unique so we have some successful models to draw from.

1. Wait for your parents to be sober before bringing this up

2. Gather some evidence to make sure you can back your accusations

3. Be firm about them needing to get help but don’t forget to be kind

4. Don’t engage in finger-pointing or make them feel little

5. Act decisively if you suspect a problem. Don’t wait for the problem to get worse

6. Talk to their doctor and plan an intervention if it comes to that

7. They will resort to emotional blackmail and resent being associated with addiction. You have to be prepared for that

There are luxury drug rehab facilities available, which work more like a spa than a treatment center. This is a great option if you have the resources. You may even sell the whole idea as a getaway from their daily monotonous routines.