If growing older weren’t hard enough already, aging can often entail a loss of physical, psychological and/or environmental mobility, which in turn raises the risks of a drinking problem. Consider, for example, that nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol-related issues, according to statistics from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Link Between Immobility and Substance Abuse
This link between immobility and substance abuse among the elderly can be easy to miss— both for those who are most vulnerable (seniors) and for their loved ones. Exactly how are immobility and alcohol abuse connected in older adults, and how do you know if you or a loved one is affected? Below are answers to these questions, along with some tips for coping with aging-related immobility in healthy ways.
How Immobility and Substance Abuse Are Connected
Immobility is very common in old age because of physical, psychological and environmental factors that, in addition to restricting older adults’ freedom to get around, make them more susceptible to alcohol abuse and addiction:
- Physical Causes of Immobility – Arthritis, osteoporosis, hip fracture, stroke and Parkinson’s disease are the biggest causes of immobility in old age, according to researchers. But heart disease, diabetes, and other physical conditions that are more common in old age—chronic pain, for example—can contribute to the same phenomenon, thereby relegating a previously active and independent adult to a homebound existence.
- Psychological Causes of Immobility – Impaired mobility can also be the consequence of cognitive and emotional issues related to aging. These can include dementia; anxiety and depression; a fear of falling or getting hurt; low motivation; and grief after losing a spouse.
- Environmental Causes of Immobility –The loss of a license is a major contributor to immobility in old age, as is the lack of transportation by able-bodied friends or family members when driving is no longer permitted. Similarly, a homebound senior who does not have adequate care or the help of assistive devices that make it easier for them to get around—handrails on stairs, bars in the shower, a walker or wheelchair, etc.—can end up bedridden.
These many causes of immobility in old age naturally can be accompanied by difficult emotions, such as feelings of anger and sadness over a loss of independence and embarrassment about having to be dependent on others to get around. And these often negative and uncomfortable emotions may trigger drug or alcohol abuse, research has suggested.
Alcohol Abuse in Older Adults: Warning Signs to Watch for
If a senior’s drinking typically occurs as an effort to dull or soothe difficult or painful emotions related to a loss of mobility, they may therefore be suffering from alcohol abuse. Other warning signs to watch for in discerning a potential alcohol problem include:
- A pattern of solitary drinking
- A loss of interest in former hobbies
- Drinking despite warning labels on prescription drugs
- Chronic health complaints
- Memory loss and mental confusion
- A decline in personal hygiene on account of drinking
Coping With Aging-Related Immobility in Healthy Ways
We have now established that coping with aging-related immobility can be emotionally hard, and that it is not uncommon for a drinking problem to develop in the absence of healthy coping tools. One of the best ways to protect one’s health in the golden years, then, is to surround oneself with a healthy emotional support network. Research at UC Berkeley has confirmed this observation. Specifically, seniors who live in neighborhoods with high levels of “social capital” where “there is more trust and more helpful neighbors,” reportedly enjoy greater mobility—and, by implication, lower rates of alcohol abuse.
What’s the takeaway for good health? That in the older years, relationships of mutual trust and support are arguably more important than ever, and that surrounding oneself with a robust support network is key. In other words, the more you or a loved one struggling with immobility can make use of opportunities to socialize, the healthier you’ll be.
About the Author
Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery, where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.
Link Between Immobility and Substance Abuse
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