Contrary to the common perception, recreational drug use is not just for the younger generations; it’s actually a growing problem among older adults.
In fact, a new study by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine discovered that many Baby Boomers who were using recreational drugs in their youth have continued using into their older age.
And the statistics are now reflecting the effects of that: Between 1999 and 2019, 79,893 people in the U.S. aged 55 to 80 died by opioid overdose, with about half being between the ages of 55 and 64, according to the study’s findings. And the annual overall death rate per 100,000 people 55 and up ranged from a low of 0.9 in 1999 to a high of 10.7 in 2019 and increased annually from 2000 and beyond.
The study’s authors found that drug abuse by older adults often goes unnoticed because of stereotypes of seniors who don’t come close to resembling images of drug addicts—even though their behavior indicates a substance abuse problem. For example, an older adult might run out of prescription medications early, take them when not needed, ask multiple doctors for the same prescription, or appear confused and have issues with memory or falling—all warning signs of substance abuse, explained Sara Rose Danesi, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist with Amita Health Behavioral Medicine Institute.
Other telltale signs of possible substance abuse include:
· Slurred speech
· Changes in sleeping habits or patterns
· Unexplained bruises and injuries
· Mood swings, especially when medication is not available
· Irritability and depression
· Unexplained chronic pain
Danesi said to also watch out for changes in eating habits, decreased decision-making skills and bad judgment. Other red flags include an insistence on being alone, decreased contact with family and friends, poor hygiene and a loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
However, the challenge for caregivers is that many of these substance abuse symptoms mimic many other diagnoses, such as dementia, depression, diabetes, anxiety and, in some cases, abuse.
Drug use affects seniors differently
After the age of about 50, adults’ bodies change and slow down metabolically and react differently to any drug, according to Brenda Iliff, vice president of clinical services at Rosecrance Jackson Centers in Sioux City, Iowa. Add to that the different medications they’re taking for health issues and one drink could affect them the same as three or more did in their youth.
“One and one is not always two when you’re aging,” she said.
Older adults favor alcohol
Iliff said up to 17% of people over the age of 60 are at risk of substance abuse or misuse (mismanagement of medication) compared to about 10% of the general population.
“The more accessible a drug is, the more likely it is to be abused,” Iliff noted. “Alcohol has always been there and has always been a problem; we’re just talking about it now.”
She said alcohol sales are up due to the loneliness and isolation caused by the pandemic. Nationally, she’s witnessed more older adults abusing marijuana because it’s now easy to obtain in most states.
“A lot of folks were using these drugs when they were younger,” Iliff said. “They don’t know marijuana is very different now; it’s much stronger, more potent.”
In the past, she said older adults had access to opioids – anxiety and sleeping medications that calm you down and help you rest – but the drugs are not easy to access anymore. While some senior citizens abuse methamphetamine, she doesn’t see a lot of meth users among older adults. The ones who do use it are typically long-term users who started using it to enhance sexuality or promote weight loss.
Planting the seeds to a problem
Many times, addiction happens accidentally. An older adult had surgery, was prescribed pain pills – which made them feel good – and continued taking them when it was no longer necessary. Or their evening glass of wine turned into multiple drinks and became a problem.
The trouble is, older adults are generally retired and don’t have structure to their days anymore, Iliff said. They’re not going to work or taking care of children—they have time to use chemicals. They also might feel a lack of purpose, become upset when they browse social media and see other people enjoying retirement more than they are, and turn to drugs to numb the pain.
Profile of a user
Older adult users usually fall into one of two types, Iliff said: early-onset users and late-onset users. Early-onset users start abusing drugs earlier in their lives and may have extra medical complications, socioeconomic needs or a loss of family. They’re also more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. Late-onset users, on the other hand, start experiencing a problem later in life and tend to have fewer medical complications, social issues or family concerns.
Seek help from a doctor
“One of the most damaging stereotypes of older adults is they cannot change,” Danesi said. “To the contrary, they have changed and adapted throughout their lives. With the right care, compassion and respect, they’re capable of living healthy lives without substance abuse.”
Once your loved one is willing to get help, many treatment options such as counseling, 12-step programs and support groups are often effective paths to recovery. However, getting them to the doctor can be tricky. Danesi suggests framing the conversation in love and concern, letting the family member know you want the best for them.
Also be sure to avoid judgment or stigma, and don’t use the words “alcoholic” or “addict.” Instead try to connect your concern to a medical issue with statements such as, “You’re not yourself. Mom, I’m worried about your diabetes. It seems to be more out of control than ever. I’m worried drinking is affecting it. It looks like you’re ordering on the internet. Can we talk to your doctor about this?”
Like any problem, ignoring it will not make it go away and will likely only worsen the issue. Be sure to speak to your loved one’s health care team for guidance on next steps.