There are currently more than 2.5 million senior adults in the USA battling substance addiction with between 6 and 11% of elderly hospital admissions being due to these problems. There are countless reasons for turning to substance abuse later in life such as life-changing events or health-related issues that can take an emotional toll on a person. Potential triggers include retirement, the death of a spouse, relocation, insomnia or family conflict.  Any of these events can provoke abusive behavior that may result in full-scale addiction.

Substance abuse amongst the elderly is especially dangerous because seniors are much more vulnerable to the debilitating effects of these substances than younger people are. Adults older than 65 have a decreased ability to metabolize drugs and alcohol and are also more sensitive to them, making it dangerous for seniors to use drugs or alcohol even if they are not addicted to them. Drug or alcohol abuse symptoms may manifest themselves in many ways and often mimic mental or medical disorders such as depression, dementia, and diabetes. It is imperative to take heed of any of the signs of abuse listed below and to have medical assistance systems in place to ensure that swift medical care is available when needed.

Speech, smell and loss of appetite

Some of the most obvious indications are slurred speech or the smell of alcohol on the breath. A decline in personal hygiene also often points to substance abuse amongst seniors while a loss of appetite is another common sign. Not eating enough decreases energy levels, lowering the immune system and making the senior individual more susceptible to illness.

Emotional instability and severe defensiveness 

A person who was previously emotionally stable often becomes very unpredictable due to the addiction. Mood swings can become a common occurrence with an individual going from calm to extremely aggressive within seconds.   Addicts of all ages tend to display complex patterns of denial and blame, blaming others for all the problems they are experiencing and denying they have an addiction problem.

Excessive sleeping and unsteadiness

A senior’s metabolism tends to be not as efficient as it used to be and consuming either drugs or alcohol will drain their energy. Sleeping for long periods at a time or falling asleep under unusual circumstances could point to possible drug or alcohol abuse. The elderly are generally more prone to falling with the risk increasing significantly while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  Frequent falling can point to alcohol abuse or a variety of underlying medical problems.

The effects of substance abuse in seniors

The physical, as well as the emotional consequences of substance abuse in elders, are harrowing. The longer a person is dependent on drugs or alcohol, the more reliant they become on it to cope with everyday life, sparking bouts of severe anxiety.  The human body is not designed to withstand prolonged substance use. The lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys can all become weak due to drug or alcohol abuse, eventually leading to death.

If you believe that a senior loved one may have a substance abuse problem you need to intervene as soon as possible. One option is to alert your loved one’s doctor about your concerns. Treatment and intervention vary from person to person but a medical professional will be able to set your mind at ease and discuss all plausible options with you.

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