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Kendal at Oberlin Blog

The Hidden Epidemic Among Older Adults

Posted by Molly Kavanaugh on Apr 12, 2017 10:51:47 AM

kao-drug-alcohol-abuse (1).jpgConsider these statistics from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence:

  • There are 2.5 million older adults with an alcohol or drug problem;
  • When it comes to older adults, 6 to 11 percent of hospital admissions, 14 percent of emergency room admissions and 20 percent of psychiatric hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems;
  • Nearly 50% of nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems;
  • Older adults are hospitalized as often for alcohol-related problems as for heart attacks;
  • Nearly 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are prescribed for older adults each year.

Alcohol and drug abuse is more harmful to older adults, because the risk of injury and harmful medication interactions are greater and the physical effects are more debilitating, the National Council explains.

So, if the numbers are so dramatic and the danger is greater, why is drug and alcohol abuse among older adults often called the “hidden epidemic”?

Shame, Ignorance and Other Reasons Problem is Hidden

Older adults are often misdiagnosed because of their own attitudes and the attitudes of others. Abusers may feel shame and guilt and hide their behavior from family members and healthcare professionals.  

Family members may overlook the behavior, thinking their loved one is old and should enjoy their remaining time.

Healthcare professionals may not take the time to do adequate screening and assume memory loss, confusion and other symptoms are related to existing medical or behavioral disorders.

Other signs that may indicate someone has a drinking or drug problem include:

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

Why Older Adults May Turn to Drugs and Alcohol

Many people have spent part or most of their adult lifetime drinking alcohol in moderation – 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks for men (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Can being more connected prevent alcoholism and depression?


But with age comes retirement and, generally, more free time and fewer responsibilities. Growing older can also be a time of change and loss, which can present coping challenges. A spouse or close friend dies, family moves away or downsizing becomes necessary. Driving, traveling and other activities become problematic, health concerns grow, sleep becomes more difficult, and pain medications are prescribed. These are all “potential triggers” for drug and alcohol abuse, according to the Addiction Center.

C.S. started drinking in his mid-60s, after retirement and the death of his wife.

“I went to see friends, but they were always busy. I went to my kids’ houses, but they had things to do. So I just stayed home. It was like the house was just coming in on me. I was going nuts. I’m a diabetic, and one day I woke up trembling real bad. I don’t know why I thought about it, but I got a big cup of coffee. I filled half the cup with coffee, and the rest with bourbon. By the time I finished drinking that cup of coffee, the trembling was gone. I felt good. I thought, ‘Heck, there’s no better medicine than this.’”

He started attending Alcoholics Anonymous® meetings, became sober and lived into his 80s.

Where to Find Help

Alcoholics Anonymous® offers thousands of free support groups throughout the United States, as well as helpful books and other materials.  

You can also talk to your family doctor, especially if your concern is drug abuse. Talk to a therapist who specializes in substance abuse counseling or enlist the guidance of a family member or friend.  

The National Institute on Aging suggests the following steps if you want to cut back and drink safely:

  • Count the ounces of each drink and track your daily use;
  • Pace yourself while drinking, and substitute water, juice and other liquids;
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach;
  • Learn to say “no thanks” when offered a drink;
  • Develop interests that don’t involve alcohol.

Are you or someone you know concerned that alcohol or drugs are a problem? Here is a short “yes/no” test from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to help you evaluate your concerns.

Are you concerned about your health? We are, too. That’s why we offer information about health and fitness of interest to older adults. Contact us to schedule a tour to discover the many ways Kendal at Oberlin supports your health.

heart health guide


Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years.

Topics: Healthy Aging

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