Addiction among seniors is in many ways a ‘hidden epidemic’.
The media is wont to represent those with substance abuse problems as being in their teens or 20s yet this is a misconception. Research carried out at the South London Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Flinders University in Adelaide has found that “In Australia, the largest percentage increase in drug misuse between 2013 and 2016 was among people aged 60 and over, with this age group mainly misusing prescription drugs.”
Four main sources of addiction in the elderly
In Australia, the most common ‘drug’ used by older people is alcohol. Seniors may be less likely to binge drink, but they are the most likely age group to consume alcohol daily. Cannabis use is also increasing among older people, in line with the ageing of the baby boomer generation.
Medication misuse is a third problem; seniors can take medication at higher dosages or for a longer time than recommended. Finally, smoking is particularly harmful to older people, owing to its link to cognitive decline and dementia. Issues such as a decline in socialisation, isolation, and the loss of loved ones can make seniors feel vulnerable and even unsafe, and many seek to ‘self medicate’ for issues such as anxiety and depression.
Addiction puts a great strain on relationships and in the case of seniors, this stress can be exacerbated by lower incomes, since many are in retirement. In some cases, money from savings and joint interests is sacrificed to fuel a habit. From a psychological standpoint, partners of those battling substance abuse can be forced to face issues such as mood swings, reduced libido, and other types of emotional neglect. Some become ‘enablers’ of their partner’s addiction; others feel let down after being promised one too many times that their partner will seek treatment.
Aside from substance abuse rehabilitation, therapy is key to help partners learn to create healthy new patterns for their relationship. Thus, ‘enablers’ need to understand the importance of setting and respecting their own limits. ‘Distancers’ need to understand their partner’s need for support and closer communication.
Because each couple has very specific and (in the case of seniors) ingrained patterns of relating to one another (i.e. dealing with conflict, communicating) and each is used to playing different roles in a relationship, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy can go a long way towards building healthier behaviours.
Repairing relationships takes time. In the beginning, one partner (or both) may have trust issues; they may feel hurt and disappointed by repeatedly being let down. Couples should understand that moving forward involves individual as well as joint effort. That is, each should look into the values they need from a relationship (e.g. loyalty, responsibility, openness, honesty) and look at the changes they can make to their own behaviours and thought/emotional patterns, rather than focusing on their partner and demanding change.
It is very difficult to repair a relationship that has been significantly affected by addiction, without professional help. A seasoned therapist can help couples set specific behavioural and other goals, and check regularly to see that specified progress is being made. Relationships don’t always survive addiction but therapy, hard work and the rebuilding of trust can help senior couples find the important source of friendship and support they always counted on having in their winter years.
This article was kindly contributed by Chrissy Jones.