Hazelden Says Older Adults Deserve Recovery From Alcoholism, Addiction Too

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Abuse of alcohol, painkillers and prescription drugs among older people is rising dramatically, yet is often hidden. Addiction treatment for older adults not only improves their quality of life, but can deepen relationships, making whatever years remain richer and more meaningful. Hazelden offers insights into effective age-related treatment.

Because older people may live alone or far from family, it’s often a mail carrier, meter reader, a church friend, a neighbor, or a local storekeeper who observes behavior changes.

It won’t surprise you to learn that the signs of alcoholism and drug abuse are different in older adults than in younger people. Abuse of alcohol, painkillers and prescription drugs among older people is rising dramatically, yet is often hidden. Seniors no longer have co-workers who might notice their behavior. They often live alone, and they don't drive as much as they used to so they don't get stopped as much for driving under the influence.

However, experts at addiction treatment center Hazelden say there are signs that may indicate a grandparent or other older adult has a drinking or drug problem. Among the warning signs:

  •      Solitary or secretive drinking.
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  • A ritual of drinking before, with, or after dinner.
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  • A loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities.
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  • Drinking in spite of warning labels on prescription drugs.
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  • Immediate and frequent use of tranquilizers.
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  • Slurred speech, empty liquor and beer bottles, smell of alcohol on breath, change in personal appearance.
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  • Chronic and unsupported health complaints.
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  • Hostility or depression.
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  • Memory loss and confusion.

Organizations such as the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention estimate that up to 17% of Americans over the age of 60 are abusing prescription drugs (including sleeping pills and tranquilizers) or alcohol. Consider consulting a counselor, psychologist, doctor, social worker, or other professional if you suspect that an elderly loved one has a substance abuse problem, says Marvin D. Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer for Hazelden. “If possible, list the person's medications, doctors, family members and friends, and your observations in preparation for your meeting.”

Always be gentle and loving with older persons and avoid shaming words or labels such as "alcoholic" or "drug addict," suggests Dr. Seppala, because they may retreat even more if they feel they are "bad" and their abuse could worsen. Be direct and specific, using "I" phrases such as "I'm concerned your drinking alcohol may be interacting with your medications."

Because older people may live alone or far from family, it’s often a mail carrier, meter reader, a church friend, a neighbor, or a local storekeeper who observes behavior changes.

Addiction treatment for older adults not only improves their quality of life, but also helps family members, friends, caregivers, and the community, says Hazelden’s Dr. Seppala. Relationships can deepen, making whatever years remain richer and more meaningful. We also know that treatment for addiction is as effective as treatments for other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes.

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the following features are most important in treating older persons who have substance abuse problems:
    

  • Age-specific group treatment that is supportive and non-confrontational and aims to build the patient's self-esteem.
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  • A focus on coping with depression, loneliness and loss.
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  • A focus on rebuilding the client's social support network.
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  • A pace and content of treatment that is appropriate for the older person.
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  • Staff members who are interested and experienced in working with older adults.
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  • Linkages with medical services, services for the aging, and institutional settings for referral into and out of treatment, as well as case management.

If age-specific treatment is not possible or practical, it’s important that treatment facilitators and members in a mixed-aged program take care to address the special needs and issues of the older participants.

While it’s crucial to provide effective addiction treatment for older adults in need of this care, it is also important to provide an environment that promotes healthy behavior by empowering individuals to manage life events without drugs or alcohol. SAMHSA identifies these protective factors:
    

  • Access to housing, health care and other resources.
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  • Availability of support networks and social bonds.
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  • Involvement in community activities.
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  • Supportive relationships.
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  • Education (e.g., wise use of medications) and skills.
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  • Sense of purpose and identity.
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  • Ability to live independently.

Bereavement, pre-retirement, wellness, smoking cessation, alcohol and other drug education, and life skills programs encourage healthy coping skills. Alternative activities such as volunteer work, Foster Grandparent programs, arts programs, post-retirement work activities, and cultural activities (such as community gardening) develop self-assurance, facilitate healthy interactions, and relieve boredom.

The pamphlet "How to Talk to an Older Person Who Has a Problem With Alcohol or Medications" is available on the Hazelden Web site at http://www.hazelden.org for a free printed copy can be obtained by calling 800-257-7810.

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Christine Anderson
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