Alcohol and other drug addiction among seniors is
such a significant and growing problem that one treatment expert
called it "America's hidden epidemic," UPI
reported July 16.
Carol Colleran, national director of older-adult services at
Hanley-Hazelden, a treatment center in West Palm Beach, Fla., said
at least 17 percent of Americans age 55 or older have either
alcohol or drug problems, or both. However, she said, very few
seniors are in treatment programs, because their physicians
usually fail to diagnose the problem.
According to Colleran, about two-thirds of older Americans have
alcoholism that started before age 50. The remaining one-third
developed late-onset addictions, often arising from life changes
such as retirement or death or disability of a spouse.
"Our patients often tell me that their whole lives are about
loss. They are losing their hair, hearing, teeth, and eyesight and
then they lose loved ones and friends," Colleran said.
Often, these seniors are misdiagnosed as being depressed. But
Colleran said, "Once we get them through detox, the
alcohol-induced depression lifts and we can confirm that alcohol
is the real problem."
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism, while hospital admissions for alcohol-related problems
are equal to those for heart attacks among older Americans,
physicians and nurses are "significantly less likely to
recognize alcoholism in an older patient than in a younger
Kristine Pringle, a doctoral student at Penn State University's
school of health policy and administration, said that Medicare
records also show that addiction among the elderly is under
"Several years ago we did a study with researchers at
Columbia University," Pringle said. "We interviewed 400
physicians and tested them with a hypothetical case study of an
elderly alcoholic. Less than 1 percent of them mentioned
Diagnosing drug addiction is just as difficult, because older
Americans usually don't use street drugs, but rather abuse their
"The most common addiction is to benzodiazepines,
tranquilizer drugs like Valium and Xanax," Colleran said.
"Valium was developed as post-trauma medication to be used
for 14 days. We have patients who have been taking it for 20 to 25
Noting that prevention is key to curbing addiction among the
elderly, Colleran said that Americans should include emotional
planning in their retirement preparation.
"We always hear about financial planning for
retirement," she said. "But I think that emotional
planning is just as important. We need to plan for ways to retain
our sense of belonging and being needed by others. An emotional
retirement plan could go a long ways toward preventing alcoholism
and drug addiction among the elderly."