Substance Use by Seniors 

Welcome to the October edition of Aging and Still Engaging, presented by the SLO County Commission on Aging (SLOCOA). Colin Quennell, L.M.F.T., who is a program supervisor for the County of San Luis Obispo Health Agency Behavioral Health Department, provided the content for this month’s column.

As the baby boomer generation has entered the aging population, the substance use treatment field has had to change how we understand this community. Baby boomers’ history of higher risk taking regarding substance use now requires greater understanding and effective responses. By far, the dominant substance problem in the senior community continues to be alcohol. Anyone at any age can have a drinking problem, but seniors are also impacted by isolation, loss of support systems, increased sensitivity to alcohol, harmful interactions with medicines, and decreased cognitive functioning. Increased opioid use has clearly hit the senior population with similar concerns as alcohol use, but compounded by physical ailments and the need for pain management. The National Institute on Aging (NIH) tells us that sustained alcohol use over time can lead to certain kinds of cancer, liver damage, immune system disorders and brain damage. It may also worsen some health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, memory loss, and mood disorders.  Another side effect of alcohol use in seniors can make some medical problems harder for doctors to find and treat. For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels and simultaneously can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack. Alcohol and other drugs may cause some people to be forgetful and confused, the very symptoms that could be misdiagnosed as signs of Alzheimer’s disease. In older adults, the risk for falls resulting in hip or arm fractures and other injuries increase by 60% with drinking.  Substance misuse and abuse can strain relationships, and at the extreme, heavy use can contribute to domestic violence and elder abuse. In other words, substance use is often a factor when people become violent, as well as when they are violently attacked.

Help with substance use problems is available in SLO County. In my experience working in this field for more than 25 years, there is no upper age limit to begin addressing the problem. “Mike” was 82 years old when he received a letter from an old friend telling him she still cared for him. His wife had passed six months earlier and he had just put his faithful companion dog to sleep. “Mike” had decided earlier that he would drink himself to death. Instead he took a shower, put on a suit and went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and got sober. He married a year later and is still active in his sobriety at age 94.

Help can be found through SLO County Drug and Alcohol Services, which offers walk-in screening clinics at four locations, and can be reached through a 24-hour line at 800-838-1381. Other resources available are Cottage Outpatient Program, Ken Starr Wellness Group, and The Haven.

The San Luis Obispo County Commission on Aging invites the public to join them at the Veteran’s Hall on Grand Ave. in San Luis Obispo on Friday, October 19 from 10 a.m. – Noon.  The topic that day, Predatorial Scams Targeting Seniors, will be presented by District Attorney, Dan Dow.  For more information about the SLO County Commission on Aging, visit, or call (805) 235-5779.

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