Substance Use and the Senior Adult

Substance Use and the Senior Adult

Nancy Pilat-Renner, MBA, MA, LPC, CACI, NCC

Director of Outpatient Services

Three Rivers Behavioral Health

What do you want to be when you grow up? As a child, how many times were you asked that question? As a Certified Addictions Counselor, my philosophy on addiction is that no one raised their hand at age five and told their teacher they wanted to be an “alcoholic” when they grew up. Addiction is not a choice that a person makes.  Addiction is not a moral failing or a character weakness. It is a disease; a physical, mental and spiritual condition that destroys lives. And like every other disease it can be treated and managed so the individual struggling with addiction can live a long, healthy and productive life. The disease of addiction impacts the way the brain recognizes pleasure. This change in the brain chemistry causes cravings to occur which in turn leads the addict/alcoholic to continue using despite negative consequences.

So what leads an individual to use substances to such an extreme that the disease of addiction takes over their life? Using alcohol or other illicit drugs can start out as an attempt to dull or cope with a perceived pain, a loss, a grief or a trauma. Due to the fact that our perceived perception is our reality the substance becomes the main coping skill.

The substance is a powerful force and tells the brain it will numb the pain, the loneliness, the hurt, the shame or the guilt they feel. Many times the substance user is just trying to make it through the day without remembering the pain in their life. Sometimes, addiction can begin innocently enough with a prescribed medication. Excessive perceived levels of pain, depression or anxiety can lead to over use, misuse and then addiction of these types of medications and with the misuse, comes addiction.

Getting older is not for the faint at heart. With the challenges many older adults are experiencing today such as forgetfulness, confusion, and life transitions can bring many challenges to the senior adult.  Being a senior adult is challenging on even the best of days. All of these situations can alter a person’s ability to enjoy the things they once found pleasure in prior to those so called “golden years.” Change is hard and often, we do not welcome it. As we mature change does not become any easier so how do we manage is appropriately?

For many, turning to alcohol or other substances seems to be the easy answer but this is not the best choice. Using alcohol or other drugs can lead to greater challenges when aging due to the fact that they interfere with prescribed medication. Addiction in an older adult can be hard to recognize and diagnose.  Substance use can mimic diabetes, dementia, depression, and other mental health illnesses. According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, data compiled from 2007 to 2014 reports nearly 16.2 million adults aged 65 and older used alcohol in the past month and almost 500,000 used an illicit drug.

So what are some positive ways to manage senior life changes so healing can be found? Suggestions include:

  • Find a support system: talk to someone, make new friends, reach out to your children or join a support group
  • Re-engage with your old networks: church, clubs or civic organizations
  • Embrace your feelings: cry, yell or laugh
  • Tell your loved ones how you feel. If they have passed on, write them a letter and share your heart
  • Take care of yourself, eat properly, get plenty of sleep and exercise.
  • Plant a garden, write a short story or poem, paint, listen to music or find a new hobby
  • Find a way to give back: smile, tell those around you “good morning,” volunteer if you are willing
  • Read to someone who cannot read for themselves
  • Get a pet, this will allow you to socialize and make new friends

Being an older adult comes with its own ups and downs and how we manage these becomes even more important.    

Signs that a loved one may be misusing, abusing or is addicted to alcohol or other substances:

  • Drinking or using substances in secret or when alone
  • Loss of interest in things that once brought pleasure
  • Drinking or using substances despite warning labels on prescription medications
  • Irritability, anger or depression
  • Slurred speech
  • Smell of alcohol on the breath
  • Changes in appearance
  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Inability to sleep
  • Decrease in activities of daily living

If you or someone you love needs help overcoming a substance use problem, please see treatment services immediately.  At Three Rivers Behavioral Health we are here to help you learn to manage your life stressors, grief, anxiety, depression and loneliness in more appropriate ways by teaching coping skills and addressing the root cause of your distress. To set up an appointment for an assessment call 803-796-9911.