The signs of alcoholism and drug abuse are different in older adults as compared to younger people. In older populations, drinking and drug use is often hidden. This is due to a number of factors including that older adults often live alone and may be retired and away from peers and co-workers who may have noticed their increasingly abnormal behavior. Older adults also don’t drive as much as younger people do and therefore do not get cited or arrested for driving under the influence.
Signs that an older adult may have a drinking or drug problem include solitary drinking or sneaking drinks during public or family functions, loss of interest in hobbies, hostility or depression, use of drugs and alcohol despite the dangers of use with prescription drugs, and confusion or loss of memory. Approaching an older adult with a substance abuse problem can be difficult because using labels such as addict or alcoholic may cause an older individual to retreat further away from support and deeper into their substance abuse behavior.
There can be other roadblocks for older adults in regards to seeking and receiving treatment. One roadblock is ageism, or the tendency for a society to paint negative stereotypes to older adults. Instead of focusing on their problems in a medical or social context, the problem is attributed to a person being older. As a result of the effects of ageism, older adults may shy away from seeking treatment or have fears that the quality of treatment may diminished due to their age.
Another roadblock is an overall lack of awareness that older adults struggle with drug and alcohol problems. This lack of awareness coupled with the continuing stigma of addiction in society as a whole can put up a barrier between the older adult and the treatment they may need. Older adults tend to be more sensitive to labels and stigma in comparison to younger age groups. Within the older adult populations there are subsets that may experience more barriers to recovery such as older women, older minority populations and those older adults who are homebound.
According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the following criteria should be features in recovery programs for older adults:
- Group treatment that is age-specific, supportive and non-confrontational
- Special focus on depression, loneliness, and loss
- Rebuilding social support networks
- Treatment staff should be interested in working with older adults
- Pace and content of treatment is appropriate for older populations
- Treatment should be linked to other medical services that serve the aging community
There should be also an emphasis on building those protective factors that promote healthy behavior and creates an empowerment mindset. That can include access to housing and health care, access to groups that foster strong social and community bonds, education and skills training and access to volunteer opportunities among other programs.