A troubling rise in senior citizens with addiction has occurred in the past decade, and loneliness is one primary reason. If you’re concerned about your health or that of a loved one, here’s what to know and how to get help.
A Changing World: Why Seniors Are More Lonely
Let’s start with an obvious recent catalyst: the COVID pandemic compounded issues of social isolation and loneliness for millions of people, but most especially seniors.
With data from a national poll featuring respondents age 50–80, the University of Michigan Health Lab reports that in June 2020, just a few months after the start of the pandemic, “56 percent of people over the age of 50 said they sometimes or often felt isolated from others: double the response of 27 percent in 2018.” Additionally, 46 percent of respondents said they “infrequently interacted with friends, neighbors, or family outside their household, doing so once a week or less, compared to 28 percent in 2018.”
The university study also noted that while many older people had the ability to use social media and video chatting to connect with others, it actually reminded them how much they missed face-to-face interactions. As a result, many poll respondents were more likely to say they felt isolated, particularly those who live alone.
Other Challenging Changes
In addition to pandemic challenges, many older adults experience loneliness simply because their worlds change in drastic ways. A Place for Mom provides closer examination:
- Family dynamics play a major part in how seniors live. Marriage and divorce rates, lower birth statistics, and families living far from one another mean older adults live differently than even a generation ago.
- Fluctuations in the neighborhood also contribute to a sense of isolation, especially when seniors would prefer to stay in their community to “age in place” but friends move away, services change, and younger generations move in.
- Women “are more likely to live alone than men,” and are frequently more content with this, while men “report being lonely in old age.”
- Unexpected detachment due to loss of younger family members has more negative psychological impact for individuals, compared to those who “expect to age without a spouse or family”—also referred to as “planned solitude.”
A Place for Mom also references the influence of transportation challenges, falling behind in learning new tech, and caregiver isolation as other reasons for elder loneliness. Mind.org lists other contributing factors to loneliness.
The Impact of Loneliness on Senior Health
Prior to the pandemic, studies revealed serious concerns about the well-being of seniors, and how increased social isolation and loneliness contributes to various chronic health conditions. Approximately 13 million seniors live alone in the U.S. Studies shared by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that poor social relationships, loneliness, and social isolation resulted in:
- An approximate “50 percent increased risk of dementia.”
- Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
- Significant increases in premature death from all causes, “a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical activity.”
- Heightened risk of heart disease and stroke.
The CDC also cautions that older adults who are immigrants or members of the LGBTQIA+ community face even greater risk for these and other health issues.
Loneliness and Addiction: A Dangerous Combination
There’s a big difference between feeling lonely and social isolation. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) reports that many seniors feel lonely, even when surrounded by family and friends; others are fine living alone because they have community and activities that provide them with a sense of purpose. Nevertheless, it states, “research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks of physical and mental conditions.”
One of those risks is addiction. The University of Pennsylvania Health System indicates that 2.5 million older adults have a substance use disorder. It outlines some startling statistics about addiction among older adults:
- Alcohol and drug use “temporarily numb feelings of loss, isolation, and lost purpose or meaning in life…and replace love, concern, and emotional nurturing that are a part of intimacy no longer available.”
- Because of their isolation from family and friends, seniors might consider substance use to be “one of their few pleasures in life.”
- Symptoms of addiction are often overlooked by family members, friends, and physicians as “signs of aging…especially when there’s never been a problem before but perhaps the pain of losing a loved one initiates use.”
- Widowers who are 75 and older “have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.”
- “Nearly 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are prescribed for older adults each year.” Many prescription medications are misused or overused.
Facing the truth of not only substance abuse symptoms but also the underlying contributing factors such as loneliness helps individuals get prompt and progressive care.
Find the Courage to Get the Right Treatment
Many elders over age 60 come from a generation that didn’t often discuss aspects of loneliness or addiction, so they are uncomfortable asking others for help with issues they feel should be kept private. This means that difficult conversations might be on the horizon, but the effort will be worthwhile if those conversations lead to less isolation and greater happiness.
- Some family members and friends concerned about their older loved one might plan and hold an intervention to address particular issues.
- If you’re reading this and haven’t had an opportunity to discuss your feelings and changes in behavior with anyone, now might be the time to have an honest consultation with your primary care provider or a therapist.
It might seem nerve-wracking at first, and challenging to sort through the levels of exactly what prompts these emotions and behaviors. Fortunately, there are many solutions for better mental, emotional, and physical health.
The compassionate and highly-trained admission coordinators at Willingway can schedule a pre-admission evaluation with you or someone you care about to determine if help is needed for substance use and to discuss treatment options or additional recommendations. Reach out with your questions, and a member of our team will get back to you right away.