Online NewsLetter

Detecting Drug Problems of Seniors

Some authorities believe that at least half of hospital admissions among the elderly are related to drug intoxication. Many of these problems stem from misuse of medications; in addition 10 to 15 percent of seniors are troubled by alcohol abuse, frequently leading to serious medical problems.

The good news is that alcoholics over 60 are particularly responsive to treatment ... provided the problem is discovered early enough. Other cases of drug misuse are more than likely mishaps with prescription and over-the-counter medications that could be avoided with more observant monitoring.

Charlie: A Problem Escalates

Everyone knew that Charlie was an enthusiastic drinker. Even after retirement he still went to the bar every afternoon to have a few drinks with his friends. The drinking was always structured and limited by the implicit disapproval of his wife if he overindulged.

When his wife died, the structure suddenly disappeared. He went to the bar more frequently and stayed longer. He even went there on weekends, when most of his friends were occupied, to watch football. Because he was living alone, he often skipped meals or snacked at the bar.

Charlie's friends knew he was having trouble with grief and loneliness. When he drank a little too much, they were glad to see him having a good time. His two sons were preoccupied with their own lives and families. They didn't know that with age even an experienced drinker like Charlie feels the effects much sooner. His problems were compounded by medications he was taking. Only after an automobile accident, and a stern warning issued by the investigating police officer, did Charlie get the treatment he needed.

Grace: A Crate of Oranges

Unlike Charlie, Grace drank very little until after the death of her husband. Lonely and grieving, she started taking just a small amount of gin to help her sleep at night.

Even though she may have fallen asleep easier, she got less rest and eventually needed more alcohol just to put herself to sleep. As for her grief, the alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, ultimately made her feel increasingly despondent, and her grief deteriorated to a feeling of hopelessness.

Like Charlie, Grace lived on her own and had no one to notice or monitor her drinking. The problem was detected by a neighbor who was asked to help her carry in a "crate of oranges". Hearing the tinkling of glass from a box labeled Gilbey's Gin, the neighbor talked to one of Grace's adult children who investigated. Following a few weeks of treatment and provision of much-needed home health care services, Grace improved immensely.

Bill: A Pocketful of Pills

Bill's problem was not alcohol but drugs -- the legal kind.

For different medical conditions, Bill was seeing three physicians, and each was prescribing on-going medications. No one had checked to see if any of these had adverse interactions or duplicated effects. He was also taking over-the-counter pain relievers and cold remedies.

Bill wasn't aware that age could affect his reaction to the drugs he had taken safely for years. Changes in body com-position affect the length of time a fat-soluble drug stays in the body and how much is absorbed. Because his liver and kidneys were less efficient than before, Bill was less able to metabolize his medications and remove them from his bloodstream.

When his memory started to fail, his family blamed it on age rather than his daily regimen of medications. Only when his new heart specialist took it upon herself to review all of his medications, did Bill finally escape the many side effects.

Since Bill didn't drink, he escaped another potential hazard. Alcohol can exag-gerate the effects of a medication or have an adverse interaction. The Food and Drug Administration reported that more than half of the 100 most commonly prescribed drugs "contain at least one substance that reacts badly with alcohol."

These cases highlight the need for close monitoring of drugs--not just by the patient but by family, friends and doctors. Anyone over 50 taking several medications should ask a doctor to review them and their possible side effects and interactions. Or the doctor should initiate the review. A family doctor should also inquire about a patient's drinking and give advice about how much is safe to consume when taking medications.

Family and friends of the elderly person should notice changes in behavior and personality. It's too easy to attribute deteriorating memory, thinking ability, coordination or motor skills to aging when in fact they may be caused by drugs or drug interactions.

Any expression of hopelessness should be taken seriously; many prescription drugs cause symptoms of depression and so does chronic alcohol abuse. About 50% of suicide attempts are made when the victim is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Chronic drug use can cause malnutrition. And when elderly persons skip meals, as they often do when living alone, the effects of medications and/or alcohol are exag-gerated. Eventually misuse of alcohol and prescription medications can bring on or complicate medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers and gastritis.

When used properly, prescription drugs and even alcohol have a vast potential to improve quality of life. It's up to seniors and those around them to ensure that they are used properly.

  Return to Top / Back to Sheppard Pratt On Line contents

Locations - Services - Key Contacts - FAQ - Search - Campus Map - About - Home - Make a Gift

Clinicians - News - Professional Education - Residency Training - Jobs / Volunteers - SP Logos

Newsletter - Research Programs /IRB - Conference Center - M.H.Links - Contact Us - ESS

Request Literature - Patient Rights - Privacy Notice - Art & History - Campus Map

Community Health Needs Assessment

© 2003 Sheppard Pratt Health System All rights reserved.
Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sheppard Pratt Health System
6501 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21285

Web Site Maintained by Sheppard Pratt Health System