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Does My Parent Have a Problem?

Amid political crises, environmental crises, natural disasters, and the ever-looming pandemic, coping at home can be stressful and challenging. It can be especially hard for elderly parents who are physically distancing and limiting their interactions for their health. 

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), approximately one million adults over the age of 65 live with a substance abuse disorder. Amid the pandemic’s protective isolation measures, that number is expected to surge as hospitalizations rise and more studies are conducted. 

The natural physical changes of aging can increase the possibility of misuse but do not constitute a definitive cause for misuse. Older adults are more likely to experience memory problems, so take memory problems with a grain of salt for substance abuse disorders. Older adults are also more likely to be prescribed different medications that can have adverse reactions to each other or to substances like alcohol and illegal drugs.

First Off, What Constitutes a Problem?

Proof of a problem can be hard to find amid pandemic isolation. Though one shouldn’t go looking for “proof” for proof’s sake, if you are worried about your parent, there are signs to watch for. Alcohol, opioids, and heroin are the most commonly abused substances by elderly adults in the United States. 


According to the NIDA, alcohol is the most-used substance among older adults, and approximately 65% of adults over the age of 65 fit the profile for high-risk drinking. Alcohol is a depressant often used as a social means of relaxation. 

Some signs of alcohol abuse include:

  • Balance issues, resulting in falls or fractures
  • Slurring of words
  • Confusion, forgetfulness, or total memory loss over periods of time (blackouts)
  • Avoidance of family, friends, and loved ones
  • Increased severity of other current health conditions such as cancer, osteoporosis, heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.

Since some of the signs of alcohol abuse are very similar to natural signs of aging,  communicating with your parent about how much they’re really drinking is crucial. There may also be a decrease in alcohol tolerance as they age — if they simply adjust their intake, they might avoid these problems. 

Prescription Drugs (Opioids)

Prescription drug abuse often starts innocently as the drugs are administered for pain relief. Many older adults experience pain as they age or recover from life-extending medical treatments, and it is not uncommon to become addicted to the high that accompanies pain relief. Illegal opioids, like heroin, can mimic the use of prescription opioids and are often much more potent. 

When a prescription runs out, an older adult may feel they need to find relief, so they turn to buying others’ prescriptions or buying illegal opioids. This has led to a significant rise in heroin use among older adults, making heroin the second-most abused drug by adults over 65. 

Some signs of either legal or illegal opioid abuse are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea or frequent vomiting, often paired with extreme stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Nodding in and out of consciousness more than an average nap
  • Heavy-feeling limbs
  • Collapsed veins or other vein issues from injections
  • Abscesses 
  • Lung, liver, or kidney complications

Again, because some of the signs of prescription drug and heroin abuse are similar to natural aging complications, addiction can be challenging to spot. Talk to your parent and perhaps their doctor as well about their current prescriptions. This is not an excuse to micromanage your parent. However, if their perceived level of pain or tolerance is problematic and leads you or the doctor to suspect substance abuse, an intervention might be necessary.

Other Substances 

Though it’s not likely that elderly adults are scoring street drugs or synthetic drugs amid the pandemic isolation, many of the signs listed above do apply to other drugs and substances. Tobacco dependency, marijuana dependency, tranquilizer dependency, and stimulant dependency are also common among older adults. If your parent or loved one has had addiction complications before or has admitted to experimentation with certain substances in their youth, it may benefit your family to investigate. Visit the National Institute of Mental Health or NIDA to learn more about the signs of abuse for specific substances.

How Do I Bring It Up to My Parent?

Relationships with isolated parents may be different or challenging amid the pandemic and the possibility of substance abuse. That’s okay! Be forthcoming in your love for them and your concern for their health and safety. Try not to shame or blame your parent(s) as you bring up the topic of substance abuse, as it may spark an unfair or hurtful reaction and end the communication entirely. Oolder generations might have different views on substance abuse, and they may not see it as the problem you do. Show them unconditional love and support as often as you can, which may help in opening the lines of communication about substance abuse.

Should I Stage an Intervention?

Interventions can be tricky amid pandemic isolation, and a parent’s willingness to physically see you in person might not be possible. A soft intervention may be the best start, talking over the phone or via a video chat service. Using soothing language rather than accusatory language will likely help the intervention go more smoothly. Hopefully, with love and support, your parent will be willing to get help if they need it.

If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, it can be tough to feel safe or heard, especially amidst the ongoing pandemic. It may also be challenging to identify a substance abuse problem in your parent when you don’t have frequent in-person interactions with them. At RECO Intensive, we understand that your loved one’s safety is your utmost concern, and we know how hard it is to stage an intervention. Finding a balance between what level of alcohol or drug use is acceptable and what isn’t can be especially difficult when paralleling substance abuse with the natural aging process. At RECO Intensive, our experienced staff and alumni can help you find ways to connect with your parent and stage an intervention if necessary. RECO Intensive also offers family therapy and our extensive outpatient program. Let’s get back to a brighter future. Call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533.

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