Substance abuse and aging: Are my retired parents addicted?
By Louise Stanger Ed.D, LCSW, CDWF, CIP and Roger Porter
Grandparents: What’s a daughter/ son to do?
My mother taught me how to swoosh into a room on a wave of casual chic while holding a whiskey. The issue? I was only 8-years-old, terribly overweight, and had none of the fashion acumen my mother had.
My mother was a Loretta-Young-meets-Cher type of woman and could design dresses that even Bob Mackie would marvel at. As chaotic a mother she was, she managed in her lucid moments to be a grandmother to remember for my three daughters.
She planned Easter egg hunts in the Hawaiian sun and colored their nails with holiday decals while lathering herself in iodine and baby oil.
She gave safe harbor to the oldest, a wild sixteen-year-old with a taste for the extreme and was forever her champion.
Taking her to an AA meeting became a show-stopping event. So she dug in her heels, proudly announced she was not an alcoholic, and when we left she went straight to the store for a refill.
I regret to say I was never able to get her the help she needed; she was never open to help. A heart attack killed her at the age of 80, pills and bottles in hand.
Concern for Possible Addiction Problems Is Ageless
Fast forward to just last week when Sally, a 32-year-old parent called. She was worried about her daughter’s safety – not because of anything she had done – rather, because Sally’s mother, Jackie, a retired 63-year-old school teacher sent her two-year-old granddaughter to the hospital with a concussion. Jackie had been drinking, took her granddaughter for a ride in her golf cart, hit a bump, and sent the young girl tumbling to the ground.
Then I received a call from a gentleman named David. His 72-year-old dad, Nick, was recently in a car accident and hurt his neck. The doctor prescribed pain pills, and he was popping them like M&M’s. When David would check in on his dad, the man would still be in bed, cranky and groggy. Nick used to take his grandsons out for fun activities, keep up with his day-to-day responsibilities, but the pain was too great and the drugs put him in a haze.
An educational consultant called – one of his families was worried about their mother. A recent widow at age 70, she was not returning their phone calls. Her doctor gave her Valium for depression, Ambien for insomnia, Benadryl for a cough, and told her to consider moving to a senior living facility. And to top it off with a drink a day to keep the doctors away. Some of her friends were still married, some have died, and some just were not the same. With the combination of medicines, she grew listless, losing enthusiasm for her now bleak future.
While she was great when the grandchildren were small children – planning fun activities like baking and trips to the park – her two grandchildren have grown into teenagers predisposed to computers and sports. Anchorless, grief stricken, and baffled, the educational consultant wondered what could be done to help this woman.
A high-powered executive called. His dad, who had started the company he now runs, was riddled with chronic pain. Once a weekend warrior and avid sportsman, he had long ago hurt his back and dislocated his shoulder while playing college ball. Then arthritis look out his left knee and while knee replacement surgery went well, he couldn’t kick his addiction to pain pills. How does he manage the pain while not giving in to the seductive power of pain pills?
Grandparents and Addiction: What’s the Drug of Choice?
Stories of grandparents embracing alcohol, pills or other drugs is becoming commonplace in the shadow of a raging opioid epidemic, aging population, and an ambiguous economic future. In fact, most people over the age of 70 who experience a substance abuse or alcohol addiction use either alcohol or prescription drugs.
- Per Choose Help, an online resource for treatment and recovery, 10% of women and 20% of men over the age of 65 drink more than is considered healthy
- A report by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) found that 2.5 million older adults – typically baby boomers aged 50-years and up – were addicted to drugs or alcohol.
These are particularly alarming numbers for the portion of these older adults who are grandparents, shouldering the responsibility of helping to raise the future of our country.
Why Do Older People Abuse Drugs or Alcohol?
There are several factors that have contributed to the emergence of a grandparent addicted to pills or alcohol. Aging adults experience life changes (sudden and otherwise) such as:
- children growing up and moving away
- reduced income
- death and loss of loved ones and friends
- physical health issues (chronic pain, hip/knee replacements, arthritis, etc.)
- social isolation
These issues can compound over time. Older adults may experience one or more of these physical, social and emotional changes, which unwittingly open the doors to an alcohol or substance abuse disorder.
Shame and stigma also play a role – relatives of aging individuals with a substance abuse disorder often avoid the issue or dismiss it with a different quality of life standard for older individuals.
“Grandmother’s cocktails are the only thing that makes her happy,” is a common way of explaining the problem per the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).
These same assumptions and trends even affect grandparents who are experiencing death and loss, whether it be a spouse or friend or another close family member. In fact, widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcohol addiction in the United States, which includes grandmothers in this group (NCADD).
“The increase in binge drinking among older women is particularly alarming,” said Dr. Joseph Palamar, an affiliated researcher at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR) in New York.
And drugs and alcohol take their toll in more severe ways in the grandparent population.
“Older adults have particular vulnerabilities to alcohol due to physiological changes during aging, including increasing chronic disease burden and medication use,” says Dr. Benjamin Han, also at the CDUHR and in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Pain Medication and Aging
Chronic pain is one of the leading factors in this issue. Chronic pain affects 133 million Americans; and 65% of Americans seek care for persistent pain at some point in their lives. In other words, dealing with chronic pain without medications is key to avoiding problems with addiction as we age.
Grandparents, typically at an age when the body is more susceptible to disease and ailments, turn to drug treatments to ease the pain. For example, a grandfather with a knee or hip replacement will take prescription opioids and could potentially develop an addiction. What started as a genuine pain management plan – compounded by life changes, other bodily ailments, genetic predisposition, etc. – turns into a serious problem.
Add in the spiking opioid addiction problem due to overprescribing – 30% of prescriptions in the US are for people 65 years of age and older – and it becomes clear this is an issue affecting grandparents from all walks of life.
Signs of a Grandparent with Addiction Issues
With a confluence of factors and a demographic not thought of as experiencing a drug or alcohol issue in their later years, it may be tough to spot a grandparent struggling with addiction. If you suspect a grandparent or older adult is experiencing an alcohol or substance abuse disorder, here are the signs you may be right:
- Changes in sleeping patterns. Though healthy grandparents sleep less, an irregular pattern may be a sign of alcohol or drug use.
- Decline in hygiene, irritable moods, or trouble concentrating.
- Changes in appetite or complaints of nausea and vomiting. These can easily be caused by substance abuse.
- Signs of unexplained chronic pain.
- Frequent and unexplained falls. The explanation may be that the grandparent has a lack of strength due to their age. However, substance abuse can lead to a lack of strength as well.
How To Help a Grandparent Get Help
There are addiction treatment options for grandparents to find recovery. In some cases, drug or alcohol addiction in older populations such as grandparents may have been developed over the course of several years and dependency set in. As such, detoxification is the first step toward recovery.
Medically assisted detoxification is the process of removing the substance from his or her system at a measured pace so as not to cause withdrawal. Withdrawal is the normal reaction of an addict’s body to the sudden removal of drugs or alcohol and can be very uncomfortable, according to Project Know, an online resource for understanding addiction. Still, there are plenty of responsible treatment centers with the right tools and resources and skilled professionals to start the process of recovery.
If you’re a parent or loved one concerned about a grandparent who may be experiencing addiction, here are ways to find help:
Take action. Remember that just because your loved one is over 60 does not mean that nothing needs to be done. There is a lot of life after 60, and equality of help and care should be upheld.
Seek professional help. Talk to a chronic pain and an addiction specialist who knows about pain recovery.
Get educated. Learn about substance abuse, chronic pain and the depression and anxiety that often accompanies this type of addiction.
Talk to your loved one in a caring, compassionate way. In most cases, across many demographics, denial is used to avoid the issue. However, shedding light on the issue is the first step to getting help.
Look into alternative pain treatment options. For grandparents suffering from chronic pain but don’t want to put themselves at risk for addiction from opioid and other pain pill prescriptions, there’s hope for managing pain. A new study published in the journal Addiction in 2016 by a team from the Veterans Administration Ann Arbor Healthcare System’s Center for Clinical Management Research found a non-drug approach that combines behavioral therapy and social support to help manage pain. In the study, 55 veterans took part in therapy rooted in the psychological theories of pain, and felt the effects last up to a year.
Talk to the grandparent’s primary care doctor. Explain your concerns and discuss ways to approach the subject with your grandparent. In some cases, it may be beneficial for the grandparent’s doctor to confront them about the signs of an addiction with you
Explore treatment options for your loved one. Seek counsel from an addiction and chronic pain specialist. There are several centers across the country which focus on chronic pain and pain recovery. Some excellent treatment centers include Driftwood Recovery, Las Vegas Recovery, Kemah Palms Recovery, Betty Ford-Hazelden Pain Track, and Hanley Center, and Sierra Tuscan.