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Fighting Addiction Not Just for Kids: Elderly Also Struggle with Substance Abuse

March 6, 2006
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Substance abuse isn’t just for teenagers anymore. Indeed, experts say, drug and alcohol addiction among the Jewish elderly is on the rise.

“Alcoholism and substance abuse in general is running rampant in the Jewish senior citizen community,” says Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein, founder and director of Ohr Ki Tov: Center for Growth and Transformation, which runs Florida’s Jewish Alcoholism and Addiction Counseling Services. “They go largely undiagnosed because most rabbis and helping professionals are not trained sufficiently in addiction or substance-abuse treatment.”

The problem once was thought largely to affect males, but that assumption is changing.

“For many years, the drug treatment field has been aware of substance-abuse addiction in the older male,” says a section of the Florida Drug Control Strategy 1999-2005, issued by the Florida Office of Drug Control. “But it is now becoming clear that addiction is a problem among elderly women as well.”

“As baby-boomer drug users cross into retirement age, we can expect to see more illicit drug use among Florida’s elderly,” the Florida strategy says. Florida has a large community of Jewish elderly.

“Boredom, change of social status, grief and loss, moving from one community to another and not having the same social structure, and having a lot of expendable free time — those are the major reasons why seniors start to drink or start to use prescription medication without watching what they’re doing,” Dinnerstein says. “They become dependent on the substance, whether its prescription medications or wine each day, and they don’t realize how much they’re consuming.”

According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, of the 25.6 million women over age 59 in the United States, 2.8 million, or 11 percent, abuse psychoactive drugs. Even larger numbers are addicted to alcohol or tobacco.

An estimated 200,000 women in American nursing homes have alcohol problems. The study also found that older women are more likely to be hospitalized for substance-abuse issues than for heart attacks.

The numbers are not thought to be significantly different in the general population than in the Jewish community, experts say.

Rabbi. Dr. Abraham Twerski speaks of a hypothetical but typical 72-year-old Jewish widower who lives in New York and has children living scattered around the United States.

“He is now alone in the house, nobody’s paying close attention. He hasn’t worked in a while, he isn’t busy. He can’t drive and maybe he can’t hear too well,” says Twerski, founder and medical director emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment system in western Pennsylvania. “All of these factors result in his being essentially shut in his apartment and lonely. So what do you do? You try to do things so that you won’t be lonely.”

That, Twerski says, may include drinking or going to a doctor to explain how miserable life has been. The doctor may then prescribe tranquilizers.

“The number of mind-altering medications among elderly people is appalling,” he says.

Part of the problem, says Tracey Lipsig Kite, coordinator at the Jewish Healing Network of Chicago, is that there are fewer resources for treating the elderly than the young.

“It’s very rare to find a treatment center that specializes in working with the elderly,” she says. The Chicago community is lucky, she adds, because Peer Services in suburban Chicago now has someone on staff dealing specifically with the issue of addiction among the aged.

Also complicating matters, says Lipsig Kite, is the fact that people often don’t take an older person’s addiction seriously.

“There’s a greater societal acceptance that’s not helpful,” she says. People might say, “Oh she’s 83, let her do what she wants.”

Dinnerstein says some Jewish professionals lack the proper training to recognize addiction.

“Generally the rabbi is the first person that families come to in the Orthodox world,” he says. “The elderly have even more respect for the rabbis than do other generations. If they’re lucky, they get a rabbi who can link them to a therapist or a program in the community that can help intervene.”

As addictions among the elderly grow, Dinnerstein says, the ability to properly manage money, bills and other practical responsibilities may diminish. Some turn to gambling, while others become more accident-prone.

“There’s a high rate — without drinking — of accidents with the elderly,” he says. “Once you add the substance-abuse factor, the number skyrockets.”

Addiction among the elderly does not manifest itself only in substance abuse. Many older people are turning to gambling; some end up betting away their retirement funds, Dinnerstein says.

Then “they’re unable to pay for their medicines and their meal money, and so malnutrition and disease start to take over. And they spend their dividend checks drinking more, and then they start to develop depression. Then it becomes a mental health problem and an addiction problem and a gambling problem — which we call co-occurring disorders.”

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