Whether on TV or in the newsstands, substance use issues are often depicted as affecting young adults. However, older adults are also vulnerable to problematic substance use. Research shows:
- Up to 10% of older adults have alcohol problems, which is the same rate as other adult groups.
- Older adults take up to 40% of all medications prescribed in Canada and more than half of all medications aren’t taken as prescribed.
- Use of illicit drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, is becoming more common as baby boomers age.
What are the common risk factors for substance use issues among older adults?
According to the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly, older Canadians often begin having problems with substance use during times of transitions, such as a loss of a spouse, retirement, or new or escalating health concerns.
Older adults not only metabolize medication differently, but they often have complex chronic health conditions that require multiple medications, which can adversely interact with one another or with other substances such as alcohol and marijuana.
In addition, certain health conditions can also make older adults more vulnerable to substance use disorders. For example, it’s not uncommon for older adults with substance issues to have had a traumatic head injury and seniors with depression are up to four times more likely to develop alcohol-related problems.
How do I know if my older loved one may have a substance abuse disorder?
Like other age groups, someone who isn’t taking their medication as prescribed may not be upfront with their issues or concerns or may not even realize they have a problem. In addition, signs of substance use disorders are sometimes mistaken for typical aging or other health conditions, such as confusion, falls and slurred speech.
Here are some additional things to look for if you suspect medication misuse:
- The older adult:
- Seems unable to keep track of their medications and/or doesn’t take their medication(s) as prescribed, which can include skipping doses, taking more than prescribed and/or sharing with others.
- “Doctor shops,” which is when someone uses multiple providers to get certain medications.
- Exhibits significant changes in their behaviour or physical health, especially after starting a new medication.
In addition, if you see the person using illicit drugs, not taking medications as prescribed or consuming an excessive amount of alcohol, these are obvious red flags.
What can I do to help an older loved one who may have a substance use issue?
Like other tough topics, an open line of communication is the first step. You know your loved one best and it may take multiple tries to get the conversation flowing.
If you are privy to your loved one’s health care provider, you can bring up your concerns with them. There are also several organizations available with resources and treatment options, such as:
- The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addition
- The Government of Canada’s Strengthening Canada’s Approach to Substance Use Issues Initiative
- Health Canada’s Best Practices for Treatment and Rehabilitation for Seniors With Substance Use Problems
In addition, if your loved one needs help remembering to take their medication as prescribed, ComForCare Home Care can help. Our caregivers can provide medication reminders - it’s one of the 50 ways we can help. You can also call 800-886-4044 to learn more about our in-home care services.