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Press Release

A Significant Number of Adults Can’t Identify Signs of Substance Abuse in Older Adults

Many American adults aren’t involved with their parent’s health issues or knowledgeable when it comes to symptoms of substance use disorders, according to findings from a new national survey by Caron Treatment Centers, a leading not-for-profit provider of addiction treatment and behavioral healthcare. The online survey, commissioned by Caron and conducted by Harris Poll among more than 1,000 U.S. adults age 35-50 with a living parent, step-parent, or parent-in-law aged 60+ who they regularly contact (once a month or more often), reveals alarming misperceptions about their parents’ behavior and the consequences of drinking alcohol and taking prescription medication.

The survey results demonstrate a disconnect between how involved adults say they are in their parent’s health care and what steps they actually take to support their parent’s wellness. The survey also showed that the majority of adults 35-50 (51%) do not think substance abuse is a growing problem among older adults; however, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), alcohol and prescription drug problems among adults age 60+ are one of the fastest growing health issues in America. Furthermore, the NCADD states that adults age 65+ take more prescribed and over-the-counter medications than any other age group in the U.S. Misuse is prevalent among this age group not only because doctors prescribe more medications with greater frequency, but also due to the fact that an individual’s body becomes more susceptible to the effects of alcohol and drugs as they age. Many also don’t realize that combining alcohol and prescription medication can add to health complications and even death.

“We’re in the midst of an epidemic regarding older adults and substance use disorders,” said Dr. Joseph Garbely, M.D., Medical Director at Caron, which treats addiction along with co-occurring behavioral health issues. “Tragically, the majority of older adults who struggle with substance use disorders and related issues do not get the help they need and their health declines rapidly. The senior who drank 1-2 drinks a day for most of his life may no longer be able to metabolize those drinks the same way and may also be taking an increased amount of prescription drugs. As a result, drinking any amount of alcohol on its own or combined with medication could be very dangerous. It’s critical that adults with aging parents understand the signs and symptoms of substance use disorders and are empowered with tools to talk to their parents and in some cases their parent’s doctors about these issues.”

Adults Believe They Could Spot Signs of Substance Abuse In Their Parents But Poll Shows Many Could Not Identify Major Symptoms

Experts say nearly 2.8 million Americans age 50 and over meet the criteria for substance use disorder and this number is expected to nearly double to 5.7 million by 2020, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Nearly one-third of adults age 35-50 (32%) surveyed by Harris Poll said it’s uncommon for people to start abusing alcohol and/or drugs after turning 60. In reality, many older adults experience problems with alcohol abuse after age 60. In fact, a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that at least 41% of adults age 65 and older said their issues started after turning 60.

In early 2015, Caron developed a senior program after observing the specialized needs of the population. In fact, experts at Caron with extensive experience working with older adults created the personalized treatment approach to encompass several factors such as low motivation, lifestyle changes and unique triggers such as retirement, death of a spouse, limitations to mobility, isolation, and the development of a chronic illness. Additionally, there are often significant co-occurring issues that must be treated in order to help older adults achieve recovery.

Experts at Caron also say it’s critical to start a dialogue with aging parents about their overall mental well being – including their growing vulnerability to substance abuse and behavioral health issues. Although four in five adults 35-50 (84%) said they would be able to recognize symptoms of substance abuse in their parent, a significant amount of adults did not identify the following as signs:

  • Anxiety (54%)
  • Sleeping problems (46%)
  • Failing to keep up with medical appointments and treatments (43%)
  • Depressed mood (38%)
  • Recurring accidents and injuries or falls (37%)
  • Confusion/disorientation (36%)
  • 12% said they were unsure of the signs

Adults Lack Awareness of Dangers of Drinking Alcohol While Taking Prescription Medication; Trust Doctors to Discuss Drug Abuse

Caron’s survey also revealed confusion around the potentially deadly combination of alcohol and prescription medication:

  • One in ten adults age 35-50 (10%) admitted uncertainty about what substances their parent uses
  • 11% said their parent consumed alcohol while taking prescription medication at age 60 or older
  • About 2 in 5 (37%) said it’s okay for older adults to have one glass of wine or beer while taking prescription medication

The survey also showed nearly nine in 10 adults 35-50 (87%) say they trust that their parent’s doctor would discuss the proper use, side-effects, storage and disposal of prescription medications before prescribing it. Additionally, the majority of adults (83%) say they trust the people who manage their parent’s health to identify signs of substance abuse. However, only 18% of providers discuss storage/disposal of drugs with patients and over 40% of primary care doctors report difficulty in discussing potential drug abuse with patients, according to the American College of Physician Medicine (ACPM). Safe storage and disposal is important to understand as well because of a rising trend in other family members abusing their parent’s medication.

Most doctors are well intentioned, but unfortunately we cannot rely on them alone to manage their patient’s care,” said David Rotenberg, Chief Clinical Officer at Caron. “A typical patient in our senior program has been prescribed medication from multiple doctors. The doctors may not be aware and may not think to ask the patient. Additionally, doctors sometimes fail to discuss proper use or potential side effects of the medications they prescribe or to emphasize the dangers of alcohol. We are expanding our work with the medical community to better educate them about substance use disorders. However, it’s also critical that communities and families are educated and can raise awareness.

Nearly One Third of Adults Have Observed Instances of Risky Behavior among Parents Including Drinking and Driving

While many adults age 35-50 may not be able to recognize signs of substance abuse, almost one third (31%) did report that their parent has engaged in behavior while they were age 60 or older that may be cause for concern with regard to the parent’s use of alcohol and prescription medications. Specifically:

  • 13% of adults age 35-50 say their parent has drunk three or more drinks at one time
  • More than one in 10 (11%) say their parent has driven after drinking
  • 10% says their parent has taken multiple prescriptions or OTC medications at once

Adults age 35-50 are more likely to say their father has engaged in risky behavior regarding drinking while taking prescription medications (14% vs. 7%) or drinking and driving (15% vs. 8%) compared to their mother.

Adults Report Limited Involvement in Parents’ Healthcare, Many Do Not Play Active Role in Care

According to the survey, more than 2 in 5 adults age 35-50 (44%) say they don’t talk to their parent about their health and fewer reported taking an active role in the care of their parents’ health:

  • 18% check to ensure their parent is taking their medications
  • 17% accompany their parent to doctor visits
  • 14% pick up and refill medications for their parent
  • 3% received or are receiving formal training to provide care for their parent

Many (30%) say the stress of their everyday life makes it difficult to be more involved in their parent’s life. Those with children under 18 in the household are more likely than those without to say they trust their parent’s doctor would discuss the proper use, side effects, storage and disposal of prescription medications before prescribing it (90% vs. 83%).

Awareness Needed to Address Older Adults and Substance Abuse

It’s important that adults are aware of the dangers of substance abuse among older adults and can help make informed decisions in order to keep themselves and their parents safe. While many doctors do play a role in trying to manage these issues, the earlier adults identify that their parent may have a problem, the better chance for a successful recovery. Experts caution not to wait for a parent to experience an extreme consequence before taking action. To this effect, Caron has been educating physicians and retirement home staff and training them to better understand the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and also prevention strategies.

In 2016, Caron will break ground on its $15 million Carole and Ray Neag Medical Center which will support the treatment of older adults and addiction.

For more information and to learn more about older adults and substance abuse visit or follow us on Twitter: @CaronTreatment.