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Older Adult Substance Abuse: Your Spouse, Your Parent, Yourself

Aug 18, 2007
Anna drinks almost a bottle of vodka a day. She was recently hospitalized for dehydration due to a fall. She has lost ten pounds in the past two months. She lives alone with her dog as her main companion. There is little need to eat when she obtains her daily nutrition through liquid means. I became acquainted with Anna by a call from a family member after adult protective services became involved. There were previously four calls to 911 emergency services for falls most likely related to alcohol abuse.

According to Hazeldon, a well known educational web site for substance abuse, this issue affects 17 percent of the age 60 and older population. By 2020 the number of older adults with substance abuse is expected to double. This is because the baby boomers, who are now aging, have had more exposure to alcohol and illegal drugs and are more accepting regarding usage and the acceptability of rehabilitation. Thirty five percent of all hospitalizations are the result of drug or alcohol abuse.

Her family does their best but cannot visit during the week because they live out of town. Anna wishes to maintain her independence and does not want to move.
Many older adults facing losses of family members, recent retirement, and other lifestyle changes turn to alcohol or drugs for consolation. Often family members do not want to confront the older adults for fear of anger or being written out of the will. This is definitely a difficult situation to maneuver.

Many older adults who no longer drive have a person, a neighbor or friend, who purchase the liquor for them not realizing the negative health aspects of doing so. These individuals are simply being helpful. Many say that it is none of their business what another individual does so they continue supporting an alcohol or drug habit.

The first action to resolve the situation is to find out where or how the older adults is obtaining the liquor or drugs and work to stop the delivery mechanism or individual. If drugs are involved, the same should be done. This is more difficult if a prescription drug is prescribed, however, there are automated medication machines that can be programmed to dispense at a particular time of day, thus removing access to an entire bottle of pills.

Second, obtaining assistance in the home is extremely important. Something or someone must take the place of the alcohol or the pills. This is usually resolved through activity with another individual. If the issue is extremely advanced, a stay in a rehabilitation center may be necessary prior to introducing a caregiver.

For Anna, the solution was having a caregiver visit daily to ensure that Anna eats, not drinks, a good nutritious meal, takes her medications and attends to her personal needs. This has resulted in a ten pound weight gain. Anna is no longer gaining the majority of her nutrition from liquid means. Additionally looking forward to company and the establishment of a daily routine has made a significant difference in her life.

There is hope for older adult substance abusers if family members choose to see the problem and work through it. Many older adults are good at hiding the abuse. However, the effects will eventually show themselves through physical or cognitive issues. Weight loss, disorientation, forgetfulness, frequent falls, dehydration, and other common issues indicate a problem that may be caused by alcohol or drug abuse or other health issues. The key is to have family members who are willing to discuss the issue and come to a plan or resolution that works for everyone.
About the Author
Pamela D. Wilson owns of In Home and Family Services, Inc., http://www.inhomeandfamily.com, a company serving mature adults and their family members and Pamela D. Wilson, Inc., http://www.pameladwilson.com, a care navigation company for families and mature adults.
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