The romantic and stereotypical image of our grandparents sitting in their rocking chairs on the front porch enjoying the sunset is just that—romantic. And not reality.
The reality is that the number of senior citizens who have been treated for addiction over a recent 5-year period (2004-2009) has risen nearly 50%, according to a January 2012 Data Spotlight, released by the government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The same report also cited experts who believe that the number of senior citizens needing substance abuse treatment will reach 5.7 million people by 2020.
Why are Senior Citizens More Addicted?
Identifying one single reason senior citizens are more addicted than they were ten years ago might be nearly impossible since several factors might affect the outcome.
Baby Boomer Effects
But one possible suggestion is that the Baby Boomer population is simply one of the largest senior citizen populations America has had. And as Baby Boomers age, their sheer volume breaks previous trends. In addition, advances in technology and medicine have increased life expectancy, so more people are simply living longer than they were before.
That said, the rise in senior citizen addictions is probably not solely about a large and relatively healthy demographic base aging. The reality is that alcohol and prescription drugs themselves might be affecting the rising numbers.
Less Protection for Alcohol in the Brain
As people age, their metabolisms slow down, and they lose lean body mass (including in body water content). These two factors mean that a typical amount of alcohol consumed in a younger person has less effect on the body than when the same amount is consumed by an elderly person. In essence, the senior citizen will have a higher concentration of alcohol in his or her system. Even if someone could “hold their alcohol” in their youth doesn’t mean they will be able to as they age. People tend to lose their tolerance for alcohol as they age.
Rise in Prescription Drug Abuse
Although senior citizens have traditionally been addicted primarily to alcohol, new data is suggesting that more senior citizens have developed a prescription drug addiction. This seems reasonable due to the growing number of powerful painkillers and sleeping pills often prescribed to senior citizens. Unfortunately, the same changes in the body that make drinking more potent and dangerous for the elderly also make the body more susceptible to drug effects too.
Is My Grandma or Grandpa Addicted?
You might be thinking, “My grandma or grandpa using? Yeah, right!” But if your parents or grandparents are not already abusing prescription drugs or alcohol, statistically speaking, there’s a chance they will be in the future. Sometimes a senior citizen doesn’t even know that he or she is addicted.
You might want to consider using the following CAGE questionnaire, a simple screening test for alcohol addiction. A “No” response receives “0,” and a “yes” response receives “1.” Those who score 2 or more should probably be referred to a clinical or health provider for a more detailed evaluation and screening.
- Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
- Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
- Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (eye opener)?
Do Senior Citizens Need a Senior Citizen Rehab Program?
It is not difficult to see why some level of focused rehabilitation programs might be useful and beneficial to senior citizens.
Because drug and alcohol abuse are often the cause of a difficult life experience, rehabilitation counselors work with their patients to specifically address these more foundational emotional and societal issues. Counselors know that being able to assist and strengthen their patients in these areas will greatly improve and enhance their patients’ long-term recovery.
But the reality is that some senior citizens may not feel comfortable exploring these issues in the presence of younger people who may not have experienced aging yet or who have little patience to empathize with the elderly and his or her unique feelings.
For these reasons, some rehabilitation centers offer some type of special rehabilitation track or program, designed for senior citizens.
Sometimes the focus is simply on mixing the seniors in with the other patients, but providing specialized counseling or group meetings for them. For instance, Duffy’s provides special one-on-one counseling with their patients to help address specific needs.
In other rehab centers, senior citizens complete their own program (although the number of rehabilitation centers on SAMHSA’s 2009 national rehab survey, the N-SSATS, who identified that they had rehab programs for senior citizens was quite small—just over 5%.)
What Can I Do to Help?
- Stay connected to your parents or grandparents, so you can notice early warning signs.
- Perform a simple screening test with them.
- Encourage them to seek clinical or medical evaluations.
- Help them choose an appropriate rehabilitation center or program that can help them address their specific needs.
- Love them all the time.
SAMHSA’s Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP), No. 26, “Substance Abuse Among Older Adults” is an extremely helpful, well-researched article.
James W. West’s chapter on “Age and Gender” in The Betty Ford Center Book of Answers, also contains some good questions and answers related to alcohol use and abuse with the elderly.