Support Systems for Elderly Dealing with Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is not exclusively a youth problem: millions of elderly people are addicted to alcohol, prescription medications, and other drugs. Major life transitions and deteriorating health are top risk factors. Support Systems for Elderly Dealing with Substance Abuse
Having strong support systems in place reduces the risk of addiction and improves the chances of recovery. If you’re a family member or caregiver (or a senior wondering if you’ve become too dependent on your medication), there are several things that are important to understand about addiction in general—and its effects on the elderly in particular.

The Dynamics of Addiction

Nearly every addiction begins as an attempt to relieve physical or emotional pain. A cycle establishes itself: Drugs or prescribed medication bring temporary relief, but the pain returns, the patient ingests more of the substance for fresh relief, and eventually the patient’s brain chemistry changes so he or she only feels normal with regular doses at unhealthy levels.

It’s important to understand that this level of dependence is an illness that can’t be overcome by pure willpower, and berating the person only makes matters worse. Avoiding triggers such as alcohol-serving venues can help, but true recovery requires professional treatment and ongoing support.

Addiction Can Happen at Any Age

Common indicators of drug abuse include reduced functioning, mood swings and self-isolation. Unfortunately, when these manifest in seniors, they are often dismissed as typical aging problems. Or the possibility of addiction may not be considered because the person has shown no change in longtime social drinking habits—but, as the body ages, its ability to metabolize drugs decreases and what was once manageable may become a real problem.

Anyone showing a noticeable change in behavior or physical function should be evaluated by a doctor—preferably a doctor with experience diagnosing behavioral health issues.

Stressful life transitions put a person at particular risk for developing self-medication habits. If you or a family member are retiring or experiencing another major life change, stay extra alert for any signs of developing chemical dependence.

The best way for seniors to reduce addiction risk is to take precautions against depression and isolation. Keep up regular volunteer and social activities (look into transportation and e-communication options if mobility is limited), and have a plan for staying in touch with family.

The Need for Human Support

When a senior (or anyone else) does have a substance addiction, human support is even more important. There should be an emphasis on involving the whole family in rehab from the beginning. Family dynamics can influence addiction and long-term recovery in ways that can be difficult to pinpoint without professional guidance.

Besides family and formal recovery groups, a senior’s support system may include professional caregivers. Whether the patient lives in a suburban house with a caregiver making brief weekly visits, or in a nursing home with a staff member for every need, it’s important that all caregivers be thoroughly informed on addiction issues and potential relapse triggers.

It’s also important that both the patient and at least one regular outside contact communicate well with caregiver(s), and are alerted immediately to possible changes in the caregiving situation. If a recovering addict is entering a new caregiving situation, interview the new provider(s) to make sure they understand the issues and aren’t under and misconceptions that addiction doesn’t happen to seniors. It’s essential for every major influencer to support the patient in long-term sober living.

By Anne Ciulla
Anna Ciulla, the Clinical Director at Beach House Center for Recovery, is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising our delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. In addition to addiction and mental health disorders, she has expertise in the area of eating disorders and women’s issues, both as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered and Licensed Dietitian. Support Systems for Elderly Dealing with Substance Abuse

Support Systems for Elderly Dealing with Substance Abuse 

Support Systems for Elderly Dealing with Substance Abuse Support Systems for Elderly Dealing with Substance Abuse Support Systems for Elderly Dealing with Substance Abuse

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