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Cary Quashen: Seniors not immune to addiction


Posted: April 9, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 9, 2012 1:55 a.m.

There’s a silent epidemic of prescription drug abuse taking place where one would least expect it —  the elderly.

Many seniors either don’t realize or are ashamed to admit they’ve got a drug problem. According to a 2011 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 4.7 percent of Americans age 50 and older used illicit drugs in 2011. It’s estimated that 4.4 million seniors will need treatment for substance abuse in 2020, and that’s just 8 years away.    

Alcohol is the most common substance abused by older adults, followed by prescription drugs.  Two of the most common drugs abused by seniors are benzodiazepines and opiates. Benzodiazepines — tranquilizers and sleeping pills — are prescribed for anxiety and insomnia.

The brand names for some of these drugs are Valium, Librium, Halcion, and ProSom. Pain medication — opiates (oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and methadone) are easily abused as well. 

Many seniors live alone and hide their addiction from friends and family. In some cases, an individual may have been abusing drugs or alcohol for many years, but often in the senior population one can see a correlation in increased substance abuse with significant life changing events such as retirement, moving or the death of a loved one. And some drug abuse or alcoholism may have begun as a way of dealing with loneliness, feelings of grief or financial difficulties.   

Seniors who suffer from pain, insomnia and psychiatric issues such as depression are prone to substance abuse. And we know most of the drugs prescribed for these aliments are highly addictive. And their addiction may be complicated by such medical conditions as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

Families and doctors complicate drug abuse problems as well. It’s hard for us to envision our elderly parents or grandparents as drug addicts. Often times, we’re in denial and don’t seek help for our loved ones. Medical providers often overlook quality-of-life issues as the population ages and believe the senior who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is “old” and that getting treatment won’t make a difference. 

The attitude is often “She’s 76. He’s 80. Who cares if they keep using? They deserve to enjoy themselves.”        

But let me assure you that the quality of life does matter, and if our seniors are in trouble abusing drugs and alcohol there is help. Letting a senior “enjoy himself or herself” in their old age is not a kindness.

Many would be surprised to find out that addiction programs are increasingly treating patients 55–80. The first step is identifying the signs of substance abuse in seniors. They include:

* A change in personality

* A reduction in personal hygiene

* Increased time spent in isolation

* A decrease in interest or participation in hobbies or activities that used to be enjoyed

* Weight loss or a sudden change in eating habits

* Unexplained bruises or frequent falls and physical injuries

* Lack of coordination standing and walking

* Increased mental confusion or memory problems

* Depression or persistent sadness

* A change in sleeping patterns

* Chronic pain

* A reduction in efforts made to stay in contact with family members

If your loved one is suffering from alcoholism or drug abuse, the time to seek help is now. Seniors require specialized care, often beginning with a medically supervised detoxification program, a residential and intensive outpatient treatment program. Seek a program for seniors that includes group and individual therapy, nutritional counseling, 24-hour medical assistance, and after care programs. It’s extremely important to choose a program that will provide support services and address treatment for the entire family.          

Once in treatment, seniors tend to stay committed to their long-term recovery. Convincing a senior who is abusing drugs or alcohol to get addiction treatment can lead to a long lasting and fulfilling life.

Cary Quashen is a certified addiction specialist and the founder and president of ACTION Family Counseling Drug and Alcohol Treatment Programs. He can be reached at 661-713-3006.   


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