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Co-occurring Disorders in Seniors: Diagnosis & Treatment

Co-occurring Disorders in Seniors

After you retired from your long-time career, you have felt restless and agitated. Your temper is short, you sleep a lot, and you are starting to drink more than usual.  

After she moved out of her beloved house into assisted living, your grandmother has been staying in, neglecting the things she used to love doing. When you call her, her speech sounds slurred, and she seems to forget what you’ve told her moment to moment. 

Your father, with whom you used to golf on the weekends, has stopped reaching out to you after his back surgery. Even though it’s been almost a year since his surgery, he still claims to be in a lot of pain and requires strong painkillers that leave him lethargic and a little “loopy.” He stopped going to physical therapy, and you doubt he’ll ever golf again. 

Each of these individuals could very well be suffering from what is called co-occurring disorders: the presence of a substance use disorder alongside a mental health disorder. Sometimes the addiction comes first and triggers the mental health issue; sometimes the mental health issue triggers the addiction. Sometimes it’s very difficult to tell which started first, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Treatment for co-occurring disorders is most effective when it addresses both issues simultaneously. 

But how can you tell if you or your loved one is suffering from addiction and mental illness or is just having a rough time?

Alcohol, Opioids, and Aging

While it may seem obvious that something in your own or your loved one’s life is not quite right, it can be easy to shrug it off as part of aging. After all, the aging body gets hurt more easily, the aging mind is forgetful, and many seniors take a lot of medications. A little extra alcohol is a nice relief from all of the stressful changes, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, it’s easier to develop an addiction to alcohol and other substances, like prescription opioids, as the body ages. Aging tends to lower the body’s tolerance for alcohol. But even though the amount of alcohol you might have been able to “handle” in your younger years has decreased, it may be hard to stop drinking so much. As a result, you may more easily develop an addiction.

In addition, alcohol interacts with prescription medications in harmful ways, and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “One study of 3,000 adults aged 57-85 showed common mixing of prescription medicines, nonprescription drugs, and dietary supplements. More than 80% of participants used at least one prescription medication daily, with nearly half using more than five medications or supplements, putting at least 1 in 25 people in this age group at risk for a major drug-drug interaction.”

Don’t resign yourself to the idea that you are (or your loved one is) too old to change. No one, no matter their age, needs to live with substance use disorder. Addiction can increase the chance for injury and worsen or create mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. It’s never too late to change your path to one that is happier and healthier. 

Aging and Mental Illness 

As we age, the changes in our bodies and minds, our living situations, our relationships, and our health can all contribute to stress, loneliness, sadness, and grief. When not handled in a healthy way, these feelings can develop into mental health disorders. 

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), approximately 20% of people aged 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern, particularly anxiety and mood disorders (like depression or bipolar disorder), as well as dementia. These mental health disorders play a major role in the high suicide rate of seniors. The CDC reports that “men aged 85 years or older have a suicide rate of 45.23 per 100,000, compared to an overall rate of 11.01 per 100,000 for all ages.”

When you combine the natural effects of aging with added health concerns and substance use, it’s easy to see how a person’s well-being could take a drastic dip. Let’s look at some signs that you or a loved one may be struggling with co-occurring disorders… 

Signs of Co-Occurring Disorders

Generally, substance use and mental health issues are considered a problem when they affect a person’s ability to function in their daily routines. Here are some signs to look for in older adults.

We’ll start with some signs of addiction/substance misuse:

  • Drinking more than the recommended two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women.
  • Frequent injuries
  • Slurred speech
  • Signs of cognitive impairment (often, substance misuse can mimic the signs of dementia – forgetfulness, confusion, memory loss)
  • Hiding opioid medications or running out of them too quickly
  • Using multiple pharmacies to fill prescriptions
  • Mood swings

Signs of mental health disorders can include: 

  • A change in personal hygiene 
  • Changes in sleep (insomnia or oversleeping)
  • Excessive worrying
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Sadness or numbness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Unusual ideas or behaviors
  • Constant headaches and pain
  • Anger and irritability
  • Doing high-risk activities

If you or a loved one is struggling with your mental well-being, whether for health, substance use, or other reasons, Raleigh Oaks Behavioral Health in Garner, North Carolina, can help. Our caring, professional team will create a personalized treatment plan to fit your unique needs. It’s never too late to feel better. Take your well-being seriously and contact us today. 

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