For the first time in U.S. history, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that older adults—a majority of them baby boomers—will soon outnumber children. One takeaway of this coming reality is that a great number of American families have (or soon will have) older loved ones in need of mental health treatment.
Yet many of these same families aren’t sure how to support a senior they love. They may not know how or where to go for help and worry that their loved one may be too old for inpatient rehab or other treatments. This guide is intended to help and will address:
- the link between aging and mental health conditions
- common family concerns about an older loved one with a drug/alcohol/mental health problem
- obstacles to care for seniors with mental health disorders and family concerns
- the statistics about addiction and mental illness in older Americans and what they mean
- first steps to take to seek treatment for an elderly loved one
For specific questions about a loved one, feel free to call us 24/7. We would be happy to assist in any way we can.
The Link Between Aging and State of Mental Health
There is an undeniable link between aging and certain mental health vulnerabilities. As people grow older, they are more likely to suffer from medical issues, experience grief (over the loss of a partner or a downsizing move, for example), and live alone and/or be less mobile. While these changes are part and parcel of the natural aging process, they can be major life stressors and trigger substance abuse and mental illness. In these ways, aging can impact the mental health of anyone— even those without a history of drug or alcohol abuse, depression or another condition.
Many seniors struggle with addiction— notably, alcohol abuse. A study in 2018 estimated that three million older Americans are battling alcoholism and forecasted this number will grow. As individuals age, several changes occur in the brain and body that increase the risk of addiction and deteriorating mental health. As one’s metabolism begins to slow, substances are processed differently and may present increased medical complications.
The health consequences of untreated alcohol addiction are magnified when coupled with age, including:
- suicidal thoughts
- memory loss
- broken bones resulting from falls
- co-occurring mental health concerns
Common Mental Health Treatment Needs Among Seniors
Whether it’s a drug or alcohol use disorder or another mental health condition, 20 percent of people ages 55 and older reportedly “experience some type of mental health concern,” according to an issue brief by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What are the most common treatment needs among these older patients? We put that question before Dr. Beau Nelson, the clinical director at FHE Health, a national behavioral health provider.
“Anxiety, cognitive impairment and mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder) tend to be the most common treatment needs among older patients,” Dr. Nelson said. “Often these conditions coincide with the physical effects of aging and higher rates of chronic illness in older patients.”
Seeking Addiction Treatment for an Elderly Loved One
Many family members and even doctors are reluctant to address the signs of a potential addiction with seniors, out of fear that disrupting the addiction may negatively impact the senior’s quality of life and damage the relationship. In many cases, seniors already feel a loss of identity following a meaningful career and they may struggle with boredom and loneliness.
The following factors are known to contribute to substance abuse among the elderly, including:
- Retirement and a sense of losing one’s identity
- Financial pressure
- Death of family members and close friends
- Transition to an assisted living facility
- Physical or mental health decline
If one of these factors coexists with heavy/binge drinking or misuse of a prescription drug, it may be time to seek professional guidance for an older loved one. Scheduling an appointment with their primary care physician or contacting a trusted treatment provider for advice can be a good first step.
Common Obstacles to Treatment for Seniors
Seniors have unique challenges when facing addiction.
Another confusing factor for the family and friends of seniors with a drug or alcohol problem is that the signs of addiction can be similar to normal signs of aging. Symptoms of aging and addiction can be intermingled, presenting a challenge when seeking a diagnosis.
Ageism is a very common reason that elderly people go without treatment for a drug or alcohol problem, according to Dr. Nelson:
Ageism can be many things. One of them is the notion that someone is too old to change or too old to have to worry about their health. When 80-year-old Aunt Betty is nursing her third cocktail at noon and slurring her words, it can be tempting to excuse the behavior with the rationale, “Oh, that’s just Aunt Betty.” But every Aunt Betty out there deserves a chance at better health and quality of life.
Seniors who are no longer able to drive, or who rely on home care or an assisted living facility for daily care needs, may assume that addiction treatment is not available to them. It is important to explore and discuss options with addiction professionals like those at FHE Health, in order to get a full lay of the land in age-appropriate mental healthcare.
Complicated Withdrawal Symptoms
Another common concern for seniors seeking addiction treatment is the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Seniors and their loved ones may be concerned about whether treating the addiction may be more stressful than the addiction itself. Addiction professionals can work with seniors to address these important concerns and identify effective solutions.
A Better Life is Possible with the Right Care
The first step in receiving necessary addiction treatment is recognizing that there is an issue. Seniors may not recognize there is an issue or see the value in seeking treatment. Some signs to look for that may indicate that an elderly loved one is suffering from drug or alcohol abuse:
- Issues with memory
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Changes in eating habits
- Decline in hygiene
- Lack of interest
- Unexplained bruises or contusions
An intervention may be necessary if one or more of these symptoms, accompanied by problem drinking or drug use, has persisted for at least two weeks and seems to be a regular pattern. With the help of a trained professional, an intervention can be planned. Intervention for elderly addiction usually requires the participation of at least one or two close loved ones. Indeed, research shows family involvement can be a big motivation for recovery among those with addictions, older Americans included.
The Best Treatment Path
The best treatment path is one that offers an individualized treatment plan tailored for a senior’s needs. That plan might include medication, counseling and therapy, exercise, yoga, massage, and other holistic treatment options. Select a program that offers specialized care and case management. Seniors tend to lack the social support needed to face addiction, and case management will assess individual needs and provide access to additional resources. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) recommends the following treatment elements for older patient care:
- Group therapy with other seniors
- Family involvement and support
- Case management
- Cognitive-behavioral approach
- Motivational interviewing
It is important to know that treatment has helped many seniors with addiction and mental health issues find recovery and learn to manage their condition in healthy ways. In fact, some research has suggested that because seniors are often more treatment-compliant than other populations, their outcomes are better than those for other demographics.
Senior Mental Health and Addiction Statistics
As the population of the U.S. continues to age, substance abuse among the elderly is a fast-growing concern. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 14 percent of elderly patients who enter emergency rooms and 20 percent who are admitted to psychiatric wards demonstrate signs of alcoholism. According to ongoing studies conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 16.2 million seniors report drinking during the past month, 3.4 million reported binge alcohol use and 772,000 reported heavy alcohol use. The same study reported that 469,000 seniors used an illicit drug in the past month.
With respect to mental health more broadly, depression is the most prevalent mental disorder among older Americans. Its repercussions when left untreated can be as—or more—alarming than in other age demographics.
“What many people don’t know is that older men have the highest suicide rate of any age group,” Dr. Nelson said. “Yet 80 percent of the time depression among seniors is treatable, according to the CDC.”
Supporting an Older Loved One With a Mental Health Disorder
For family members who want to support a loved one with a mental health disorder, Dr. Nelson said, “The best advice is to find quality mental health treatment that addresses their loved one’s individual needs.” He recommended talking with their older adult’s primary care provider first, in order to address concerns and rule out other physical causes. Then, “having a frank conversation with their provider and getting a referral for a mental health evaluation or a substance abuse assessment could help to identify what is going on and plan a strategy for addressing the issue.”
What Is Your First Step to Seek Help?
Navigating the world of substance abuse treatment on behalf of an older loved one can be overwhelming. When seeking help for seniors who are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, remember these principles of effective treatment, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
- No single treatment is effective for everyone.
- Effective treatment considers the multiple needs of the senior.
- Treatment must be readily accessible.
- Remaining in treatment for an appropriate amount of time is critical.
- Treatment plans must be modified regularly.
Older patients also need integrated care that treats their whole person (not just their mental health but their physical issues as well). Given their higher rates of chronic illness, seniors especially need this integrated approach to treatment. A trusted mental health provider should be able to provide this assurance by having both medical doctors and psychiatric staff on hand to competently treat whatever is going on. For questions about integrated care and other concerns regarding an older loved one, FHE Health is here to assist you and to point you in the direction of treatment resources you can trust.