Alcohol and drug abuse among the elderly has long been an under-recognized problem, according to drug counselors and those who work with the senior population.
Junction Inc., a drug treatment center in Westminster, hopes to alert seniors and their care givers to the issue through a new prevention and education program.
Joyce Tierney, the county's assistant prevention coordinator, who works out of Junction, plans to present the program at the county's senior centers and at churches that have outreach ministries for the homebound elderly.
Ms. Tierney said such a program is needed because most substance-abuse prevention efforts are directed at a younger population.
A lack of awareness about substance abuse among the elderly frequently leads to alcohol- or drug-related problems being misdiagnosed as dementia or senility, Ms. Tierney said.
"Families would much rather say their senior is going senile or has a physical problem rather than an alcohol or drug problem," she said.
Junction, a private, nonprofit agency, is developing the substance-abuse prevention program for seniors at the request of the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
Steve Goldklang, an assistant director with the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, said the agency has asked local prevention coordinators throughout the state to direct some of their efforts toward the senior population.
"It's more or less a silent problem that people aren't aware of," Mr. Goldklang said of substance abuse among the elderly.
Mr. Goldklang said people over 65 account for less than 1 percent of those enrolled in substance-abuse treatment programs in Maryland. But, he said, seniors don't have the same access to treatment programs as do younger substance abusers.
Many of the people enrolled in treatment programs are referred there through the criminal justice system, he said.
"Seniors tend to be home," Mr. Goldklang said. "They're not out committing crimes, so they're not being identified in that way."
Substance abuse among the elderly can occur for a variety of reasons, specialists say.
Many seniors who were able to drink responsibly as young adults or during middle age don't realize that their bodies can no longer process alcohol as efficiently, Mr. Goldklang said. Some seniors drink to ease their loneliness or feelings of loss after the death of a loved one.
"People don't realize how many losses seniors go through," Ms. Tierney said.
Many seniors lose much income through retirement and some with health problems are confined to their homes and forced to limit their activities, leading to a loss of independence. "A lot of seniors experience a loss of self-esteem," Ms. Tierney said.
Misuse of prescription drugs accounts for many of the substance abuse problems among the elderly, experts say. Some seniors don't realize that certain medications shouldn't be mixed with alcohol or other medications. In some cases, seniors under-medicate themselves because they have trouble paying for their medications. Other times, they may over-medicate.
"They might say, 'If one makes me feel good, two will make me feel twice as good,' " Ms. Tierney said.
To prevent misuse of prescription drugs, the state Office on Aging sponsors a medication management or "brown bag" program at senior centers, nutrition sites and senior housing facilities.
The seniors bring all their medications in a brown bag, and a volunteer pharmacist screens them for outdated prescriptions and dangerous interactions between medicines, said Pam Causey, a spokeswoman for the state Office on Aging.
As part of her prevention program, Ms. Tierney said, she wants to make seniors and care givers aware of resources available to them, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, senior centers and senior support groups.
The first substance-abuse education and prevention program for seniors is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. June 21 at the Westminster Senior Center, 7 Schoolhouse Ave.
For more information, call the center at 848-4049.