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Understanding Addictive Behaviour

Addictive behaviour can be defined as behaviour that is obsessive and/or compulsive with risk of devastating consequences. Addictive behaviours such as problem gambling, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, internet addiction, compulsive shopping are as damaging as a raging storm. Some elders are highly burdened mentally and financially by family members' addictive behaviour and subsequently their well-being suffers.

What keeps addictive behaviour going?

Multiple factors have been associated with addictive behaviours; the two key factors are distorted thinking and poor emotional regulation.

  1. Distorted thinking means forming a conclusion based on faulty logic. A common example being gamblers fallacy, which is the belief that the more I lose, the higher the probability of winning in the next round.

  2. Poor emotional regulation presents itself in the addicts' inability to relieve life stress. As a result, they attempt to reduce stress by engaging in the addictive behaviour. Some try to gain self-confidence and sense of superiority through gambling or playing online games. The immediate excitement, satisfaction and competition derived from these behaviours often serve to maintain the addiction.

    In order to assist the family members to gain control on the addiction, it is essential to understand their emotional regulation and correct the distorted thoughts

Negative consequences of family members' addictive behaviour on elders

  1. Mental stress
    Elders may become preoccupied with employment and financial problems of the addicted family members. They may feel stressful and anxious, and have insomnia that eventually affects their daily functioning.

  2. Elder abuse
    The addicts may throw temper at elders or even be aggressive to them.

  3. Financial dependence
    The addicts may ask their family members for money to sustain the addictive behaviour. Elders usually give in because of fondness and emotional attachment. If the elders continue to connive at them, a vicious cycle begins at work to reinforce the addicts’ dependence. Some addicts would even quit their jobs and rely solely on the elders for their daily expenses.

  4. Interpersonal relationships
    If the family is disturbed by the loan sharks, the elders could be discriminated or isolated by their neighbours.

*If there is suspicion of depression, seek medical advice right away.

Studies show that about 70% of those who comitted suicide showed some signal. They may indicate their suicidal intent to their family, carers, health professional or social worker directly or indirectly. Under such circumstance, immediate help should be provided with active listening to understand the reason for suicidal thought, to give support and encouragement and to seek professional help as appropriate. As regards the elderly themselves, they should share worries with family, friends or people who are trusted. Avoid being alone and participate in social activities (e.g. morning exercises, activities in social centers for the elderly)

If there is suicidal ideas, seek help from 24-hour counseling hotline e.g. Samaritan Hotline: 2389 2222 or medical professionals.

Common maladaptive thoughts & coping Adaptive coping
Denial or avoidance
Some elders may cover up the family member's addictive behaviour out of connivance.
Clear and firm stance against the behaviours
State clearly their objection to addictive behaviour, e.g. do not praise the gambler or accept his gift when he wins money from gambling. Do not praise an alcoholic for his large drinking capacity.
Not to be confrontational
Believing that the family member's addictive behaviour is chronic, some elders tend to avoid confronting the problem.
Good communication
Encourage the family member to voice out his stress and solve the problems together.
Blaming the family member for his uselessness does not help but undermine his self-confidence and increases his sense of failure.
Seek professional help
Encourage the family member to seek professional help as far as possible. If the elders are under intense stress for a long time, he should also seek professional help instead of facing the problem on his own.
(Hotline of Social Welfare Department:
2343 2255)
Refuse to seek assistance
In order to save face, the elders tend to isolate themselves from peers and relatives. This would affect elders' coping ability.
Protect the family
Discuss with other family members and tackle the problem coherently. Do not shift the responsibility to individual family member.
Provide financial support
In order to protect the family from the disturbance of the loan sharks, the elders may feel obliged to settle the debt for the addicts, hoping that all the problems would be solved quickly. However, such action would only reduce the addicts' sense of responsibility and exacerbate his dependence.
Safety issues
Store important documents and valuables at a safe place and take them away when necessary. If felt threatened or in danger, call the Police at 999 for assistance.
Neglect one's health
The elders may have poor appetite and insomnia due to mood problems and stress which would be detrimental to his well-being.
Care for own and family's well-being
Well-being help us to better cope with the hardship of this long battle. Regular exercise, sharing of feelings and pursuing hobbies can help manage stress more effectively. If in need, seek help from a doctor.

When a family member has addictive behaviour, not only does it affect the individual concerned, but also the entire family. Helping the addict to solve the short-term problems does not mean the crisis is over. Besides, delay in help-seeking may exacerbate the situation. Work on the problems together as a family. The quicker to seek help, the earlier the relief you and the family can get and make for a better future.