In 2009, researchers predicted that by 2020, 5.7 million adults 50 and older will have substance use disorder (SUD)—roughly double the annual average in 2002-2006.
One possible cause for the increase, according to researchers, is that people in the demographic of aging baby boomers have traditionally higher rates of drug and alcohol use than previous generations.
Data from 2016 research indicates that 13.6 million adults over 26 suffered from SUD in the year prior to the study. An increase in prescription drug abuse, marijuana use, and patterns of alcohol consumption that compound as we get older all contribute to the intensity of the problem.
If you’re the child of someone in recovery, this demographic breakdown can present many challenges—for your parent, and for you.
Understand the Risks
For people over a certain age, “addiction” isn’t a common way to describe someone’s drug or alcohol dependency.
If your parent is a baby boomer, recreational substance use may have defined the way they came of age, socialized, and established themselves in their careers.
If your mother or father is over 75, she or he represents a demographic accustomed to securing business deals over three-martini lunches and using “mommy’s little helper” to handle depression and anxiety. This generation also doesn’t use the term “addiction” in order to avoid stigmatizing themselves as having a moral failing.
But the facts remain:
- People over 65 account for more than 30 percent of prescription medication use.
- Alcoholism is highest among men over 75 who’ve lost a spouse or longtime partner.
- Up to 11 percent of older Americans admitted into emergency hospital/psychiatric care are there because of SUDs.
- Adults over 65 use three times as many medications as people under that age.
- Approximately 85 percent of older Americans use at least one prescription drug, and 20 percent use tranquilizers.
- Most people over 65 make frequent mistakes in their dosage—as many as three per month.
- More people over 65 are admitted to the hospital for alcohol-related issues than for heart attacks.
Additionally, older adults may have mental and emotional issues to resolve—the catalysts for their SUDs. These might include depression, anxiety, difficulty accepting health or aging complications, and loneliness/isolation.
Your parent may not want to discuss factors that led to addiction. They may have sought treatment, but consider the problem “handled” and won’t open up about key problems that require resolution.
As you understand these statistics, you may realize how difficult it is to help your parent maintain sobriety.
Take Care of You
First and foremost, you need to prioritize your wellbeing. While you may genuinely want to help your parent along this journey, it’s important not to slip into co-dependent behavior just because of the parent/child dynamic.
Your mother or father—or any other caregiving adult influential in your formative years, for that matter—may expect a certain level of respect or attention because of his or her position. This pressure often leads to aspects of co-dependency that may compound the complications you dealt with during their addiction, and will inhibit their potential for sobriety without relapse.
The National Association for Children of Addiction outlines the “Seven Cs” to help maintain your position:
“I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it. I can help take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices, and celebrating me.”
This affirmation, while perhaps designed for a minor child, is still a powerful reminder to release responsibility, blame, shame, anger, or guilt involving your parent’s addiction. He or she is responsible for continued growth in sobriety, and you’re responsible for your own wellbeing.
If your relative won’t join with you in family counseling, you may find the support you need from Nar-Anon, Al-Anon, or Alateen meetings.
Remember the Dos and Don’ts
Once someone in the family embarks on a journey of sobriety, it’s common for old behaviors to rise up. We’re only human after all, and certain aspects of healthy living take time to adopt.
“Dos and don’ts” may sound harsh, so instead consider these as essential guideposts to both your and your loved one’s recovery post-rehab:
- Be patient. With yourself, with each other, with the process. Proper, effective recovery takes time. Here again, you may find a support group to be essential for helping you in this way.
- Learn the facts of addiction. This will help you manage expectations, understand if a relapse happens and why, and allow you to create healthy boundaries.
- Stay open to feelings and thoughts. You and your parent both have valid emotions. It’s how they’re handled that makes all the difference. If your parent has a lot to process after leaving a rehab facility, remember your affirmation above and create a path that can help you both change behaviors and move beyond old wounds. Clear, honest, and two-way communication is key.
- Allow for the power of forgiveness. Providing unconditional support and love for someone’s addiction recovery is difficult, especially if you were affected in negative ways. But the more you open your heart with forgiveness, the healthier you’ll be.
- Resist the urge to judge. Again, there may be many hurts and harsh circumstances caused by your parent’s substance abuse. He or she has individual work to do to recover from it—and so do you. Judgement, reproach, or admonishment won’t help.
- Accept the new normal. There are probably numerous characteristics your parent has that you would never change. But in the course of recovery, some of those traits may be modified for a variety of reasons—probably for the better. Your parent will not be the same post-rehab as before.
Seek the Best Treatment Possible
Many treatment facilities provide interactive engagement with family members both in-treatment and as outpatient support. Be sure to take advantage of these services to create the best path to wellness you can.
DrugAbuse.gov: Nationwide Trends.
Addiction Research Report: Substance use disorder among older adults in the United States in 2020.
North Carolina Health and Human Services: Older Adults and Substance Use Disorder.
St. Joseph Institute: How to Help a Parent Who Struggles with Addiction.