When lawyers think about working with clients who have addictions, we often imagine clients who are young or middle-aged and facing legal consequences such as criminal charges for drug possession or for driving under the influence of alcohol or another drug. But not every person struggling with addictions is young, in trouble with law enforcement, or even using substances in a visible way that signals addiction to family members or professionals.
More than 2.5 million adults over age 55 struggle with addictions every year in the United States. As people age, their bodies become more sensitive to medications and alcohol. According to data from the CDC, 85% of people over the age of 60 take prescriptions drugs. Older people often take multiple prescription medicines, and often these drugs interact with each other, or with alcohol. Ten percent of hospital admissions of older people are related to problems with drugs or alcohol. Many older people become addicted to opioids or anxiety medications that were prescribed by their own doctors to deal with pain or anxiety. Once they become dependent on drugs, they may feel ashamed or hopeless. Family members may mistakenly attribute physical unsteadiness or mental confusion to normal aging or even dementia. Older people struggling with addictions often suffer alone, and in silence. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Professionals who work with them can help them recognize the need for help and empower them to get it.
Lawyers who work in estate planning or elder law are keenly aware of the need to continually assess the mental capacities of their clients. Discussions in law school courses or continuing legal education programs often center on various kinds of dementia, how to recognize them, and how to work with clients who have periods of lucidity. As the above statistics point out, lawyers also need to recognize that confusion, speech difficulties, or memory problems could be related to drug dependence, drug interactions, or even drug doses that are too high for an elderly person’s tolerance. We can recognize possible issues and refer our clients for medical or substance evaluations. Most importantly, we can normalize the experience of our clients, assure them that they need not be ashamed, and show them that there is help and hope available.
A team comprised of me and some of my colleagues in Marquette University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program has produced a brief public service video that could be shown to clients or their family members who are facing difficulties with possible addictions. Please feel free to share it with anyone who would find it useful.