As Mainers age, the problem of substance abuse doesn’t just go away. In fact, it often becomes more serious as seniors’ bodies and brains become less able to handle drugs and alcohol. The problem may be worsened as seniors themselves grow less social and more isolated.
According to Dr. Clifford Singer, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist at The Acadia Hospital in Bangor, alcohol remains the most commonly abused substance as adults age. But a significant number of both “young-old” adults — from 65 to 80 years of age — and “old-old” adults — 80 and over — abuse prescription drugs as well, he said.
Singer is among the experts featured at a daylong conference on substance abuse in older adults that will take place on Friday, April 1, at the Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center in Northport. The event is organized by the University of Maine School of Social Work and aims to attract professionals and students from a wide range of clinical and social service programs.
Singer said Tuesday that the drugs most commonly abused by seniors are those prescribed for anxiety, sleeplessness and pain. Seniors grappling with these conditions may use the drugs inappropriately, he said, or combine them with alcohol to ill effect.
“Older adults don’t use these drugs recreationally,” Singer said. “They are using them to self-medicate.” Tell-tale signs of dependence or addiction may include changes in personal hygiene, poor housekeeping, inattention to personal finances and increased social withdrawal. Because these signs also may indicate dementia, Singer said it is important to seek help in identifying the underlying causes.
The good news is that drug overuse and dependence in seniors often are responsive to simple interventions, such as increased family involvement and social interactions, Singer said. Treatment groups and individual therapy also can help. In other cases, a medical crisis and prolonged institutional care may force abstinence, Singer said.
Marjie Harris, professor of social work at UMaine, said younger social workers and others whose work brings them in contact with older Mainers may not appreciate the barriers to addressing substance abuse in the elderly. Among other issues, she said, the elderly may be slower to recognize they have a problem and slower to seek or accept treatment.
Members of the baby boom generation “pretty much grew up hearing about substance abuse as a treatable disease,” she said, and entering treatment is seen by many boomers as a sort of rite of passage. But for many “older-old” people, she said, drug dependence or addiction remains a deeply shameful condition, hindering the likelihood that they will ask for help.
Bridging that divide and helping older Mainers live without drug dependence or addiction is the main focus of the April 1 conference, Harris said.
“We’re hoping that out of this conference will come a lot of dialogue between social workers, geriatricians and other involved in the lives of older Mainers,” Harris said.
Attendance at the conference costs $60 for professionals and $30 for students. For more information call the University of Maine Center on Aging at 262-7924.