Substance abuse among the elderly is a real problem. In Europe, it was reported that the number of people over the age of 65 with a problem of drug abuse will double between 2001 and 2020. These substances include legal medication, tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, as well as over-the counter medicine. One of the reasons why there is an increase of substance abuse among today’s elderly, also called Baby Boomers, is because they have a more tolerant attitude towards drugs, which in the 1960’s, were acceptable for recreational use. Other reasons are mostly related to emotional and psychosocial issues that result from dealing with difficult life changes or situations. These life situations may be caused by a death of a friend or family member, retirement, loneliness, depression, and even homelessness. The elderly use drugs to compensate for the loneliness and social isolation they may experience. However, being intoxicated definitely hinders them to take part in social events and gatherings, which could improve their mental state. It seems to be a cycle that a drug user may not get out of without help.
Most reports and research about substance abuse are focused on the younger generation although with an increase of aging population worldwide, drug abuse among the elderly has become more of a problem and is often referred to as a hidden or “invisible epidemic”. Why is this a public health issue we need to fix? Drug abuse not only affects the mental state of a person but can also lead to physical harm. Alcohol and illegal drug abuse are among the top ten risk factors for premature death and health problems. It is also reported that the mortality rate of older drug users is significantly higher compared to young drug users.
After a long-term drug abuse, one may experience memory loss, social isolation, weight loss, and pain. Older people who are drug users are intoxicated and more likely to suffer falls and serious injuries. Especially after a fall, their mental and physical health will decline rapidly. In most cases, substance abuse of older adults who live at home alone will go undetected because they are able to hide it from their family as well as their physician. Physicians are often not able to differentiate between the symptoms of substance use and symptoms of aging. This is why the elderly rarely get referred to a Substance Abuse Specialist so they can receive the help they need. It is important to raise awareness of substance abuse among the older generation. We need to educate physicians, nurses, as well as our family members on how to recognize symptoms or behaviors of substance abuse. In addition, treatments and interventions have to be tailored to the needs of older drug users.
Martina Lesperance is a Health Educator and Screening Technician in El Paso, Texas.