Guest Columns

Alcohol and medicine abuse among seniors

 David Rotenberg
David Rotenberg

Even the most well intentioned long-term care providers may not recognize or fully understand the implications of their patients' use of alcohol and medications. Society doesn't typically depict seniors as having a problem with substances. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol and other substance abuse can indeed be an issue after age 60. A study conducted by the clinic found that more than 40% of adults age 65 and older reported problems with alcohol that started after they turned 60.

Why should this concern you as a provider? Some clients entering long-term facilities may already abuse alcohol or other drugs. Family members may be in denial or unaware of the extent of the problem. Caron Treatment Centers, a not-for-profit provider of addiction and behavioral health treatment, conducted a recent survey which found that most adult children don't view substance abuse as a growing problem among seniors and aren't as involved in their parents' healthcare as they'd like to think they are. Adult children also thought they could identify a substance abuse issue in their parents but there was a significant disparity because those who said they would know if their parent had a problem and those who actually knew the signs. 

It's critical that long-term care facilities invest in training and educating staff and raising awareness among family members to help them understand broader behavioral health issues and the signs and symptoms of substance abuse. While a number of seniors drink to excess, some may misuse over-the-counter and prescription medications. Both problems are increasing at an alarming rate in this age group, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

We've found that life events can make a senior vulnerable to substance abuse, such as the death of a spouse, mobility limitations, and chronic illness. Additionally, many seniors trust their doctors and don't feel comfortable or feel that it's necessary to question prescriptions to powerful anti-anxiety and pain management medications.

In fact, adults age 65 and over take more medications than any other age group. As people age, their bodies become more susceptible to the effects of alcohol, and drinking while taking medication can even have deadly consequences. Occasionally, doctors may not be aware that a patient is taking medication that another doctor has prescribed and don't always check for dangerous interactions. At Caron, we have found that a number of patients in our senior program are indeed taking medications prescribed by more than one doctor. Compounding that problem is the fact that doctors don't always discuss potential side effects and proper medication use, and the danger of mixing alcohol and medications.

Our experts are working with the medical community and long-term care providers to inform both groups about substance use disorders. We are also building a $15 million medical center that will address the expanding medical needs of this population. You can help educate and empower your staff, as well as your patients and their families to learn about behavioral health and the dangers of substance abuse in today's world.

Top signs of alcohol and other substance abuse in seniors include:

  • Isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Problems sleeping
  • Sickness
  • Missed medical appointments
  • Depressed mood
  • Increased accidents and falls

Don't wait for an emergency to take action. We can all take steps today to help our seniors live their lives to the fullest every day.

David Rotenberg is the chief clinical officer at Caron Treatment Centers, a not-for-profit provider of addiction treatment and behavioral healthcare.


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Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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