Substance Abuse and Addiction in Seniors and the Elderly - ARISE

Substance Abuse and Addiction Among Seniors and The Elderly

The most affected age group by substance abuse and addiction is young adults aged 18-24, but addiction can affect anyone at any stage in their life. It is not uncommon for seniors and the elderly to abuse substances, misuse their medications and develop a substance use disorder.

Substance abuse among seniors and the elderly can be extremely harmful. The painful health effects of substance abuse can be even more dangerous in this population than it is in younger users due to old age.

Since there is a misconception that addiction can’t develop later in life, addiction among people ages 65 and older often goes unrecognized or undiagnosed. Even healthcare providers often overlook signs of substance abuse in seniors and the elderly. However, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that alcohol abuse and prescription drug abuse affect up to 17% of adults over the age of 60. In total, nearly 1 million adults aged 65 and older have a substance use disorder.

Understanding the Causes Behind Substance Abuse and Addiction in the Elderly

Substance abuse and addiction are often attributed to things like stress, mental health, and peer pressure, but there are many reasons why people sometimes turn to substance abuse later in life.

First, it’s important to note that many seniors and elderly individuals have several medications that they are prescribed and take each day. If doctors and pharmacists aren’t careful, a certain medication interaction can produce euphoric or habit-forming effects. Easy access to many medications may also make it easy for seniors to engage in substance abuse without having to seek out drugs deliberately on the streets.

Other circumstances, such as health-related issues and life-changing events, can also be emotionally challenging for seniors, causing some of them to turn to drugs or alcohol for relief.

Potential causes of substance abuse and addiction in the elderly include:

  • Adjusting to retirement
  • Coping with feelings of loss of purpose or productivity
  • Death of a family member, spouse, or pet
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Financial strain
  • Physical pain or chronic pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mental health decline
  • Coping with relocation or nursing home placement
  • Family conflict

The changes the mind and body go through while aging can be difficult to accept. Depression, memory loss, health problems, and watching loved ones pass away can be terribly painful, causing some elderly individuals to abuse drugs and alcohol for relief.

alcohol abuse in seniors

Commonly Abused Substances by Seniors

Some drugs are more likely to be abused by the elderly than others. For example, older individuals are less likely to use illicit street drugs like heroin, meth, and cocaine. Instead, they are more likely to abuse prescription drugs and alcohol. This is because alcohol is widely available and more than 80% of seniors take at least one prescription medication each day.

A large study found that 13% of men and 2% of women between the ages of 60 and 94 are heavy drinkers, and up to 6% may have an alcohol use disorder. Between 2001 and 2013, rates of alcohol use disorder among adults aged 65 and older increased by 107%.

When it comes to prescription drugs, the rate of drug abuse varies depending on the type of medication, but prescription drug abuse and dependence range from 1-26%. One study found that up to 11% of women over the age of 60 have abused their prescription medications.

The most widely abused prescription drugs by older adults include:

  • Opioids (Codeine, Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Morphine, Meperidine, Hydromorphone, Fentanyl, and Tramadol)
  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Tranxene, Valium, Serax, Ativan, Restoril, and Halcion)

Why is Substance Abuse and Addiction so Dangerous for Seniors?

Alcohol and drug abuse among seniors is extremely dangerous. In older adults, too much alcohol can cause serious balance problems which can result in falls and other injuries like hip or arm fractures.

Alcohol can also interact with a number of medications, reducing their efficacy and leading to an increase in the symptoms that the medications were designed to treat. Lastly, heavy alcohol abuse impairs liver function, increases the risk of many health conditions such as hypertension, and causes severe cognitive impairment.

Prescription drug abuse is dangerous, too. Even if medications are prescribed, they can be harmful when abused or combined with alcohol. For example, benzodiazepines are medications that are often prescribed to seniors for anxiety, pain, and insomnia, but they can be highly addictive. Rates of benzodiazepine abuse among seniors have continued to increase year after year despite the fact that benzos can lead to cognitive decline, poor coordination, and addiction.

Other potential risks of elderly substance abuse and addiction include:

  • Development of mood disorders
  • Heart and lung problems
  • Memory issues
  • Impaired judgment
  • Poor coordination
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Increased risk of motor vehicle accidents
  • Increased risk of health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, liver, bone problems

Substance abuse can impact seniors’ mental health, too. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 25% of patients over the age of 50 who abused opioids or benzodiazepines experienced suicidal ideation.

People aged 65 and older have a slower metabolism, so their ability to metabolize drugs and alcohol isn’t the same as it once was. This means seniors and the elderly have an increased sensitivity to drugs and alcohol, making drug and alcohol abuse even more dangerous and habit-forming.

Symptoms of Addiction in Seniors and the Elderly

Substance abuse and addiction among seniors often go overlooked. After all, as people age, their mental and physical health declines and they go through many challenging life changes. Their behaviors, interests, and beliefs may change as well as how they cope with life’s challenges.

If someone over the age of 65 develops an addiction, they may begin to show specific signs and symptoms of addiction, such as:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Memory problems
  • Mood swings or erratic behavior
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Lack of interest in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Getting defense or angry easily, especially when confronted about changing behaviors

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are also typical symptoms that result from aging and deteriorating mental and physical health. As a result, substance abuse in the elderly population is frequently overlooked and undiagnosed.

addiction treatment for senior citizens

Addiction Treatment for Senior Citizens

If addiction is identified, it is vital to get support as soon as possible. Substance abuse can quickly cause an older person’s health to degenerate and the sooner an addiction is treated, the better.

It’s also important to look for a treatment program specializing in elderly substance abuse and addiction because individuals over 65 typically require specialized care. For example, a rehab center should be able to:

  • Accommodate any disabilities the person has
  • Effectively manage and treat any health conditions present
  • Offer social support or peer groups that are geared toward seniors
  • Collaborate with the family to provide the best possible care
  • Offer case management services that advocate for the patient’s medical, psychiatric, and social resources
  • Aid patients in achieving healthy lifestyle habits such as proper diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene

Treatment begins with medical detox where patients are under 24-hour supervision. Doctors prescribe detox medications and nurses monitor vitals to keep severe withdrawal symptoms at bay. After detox, rehab involves counseling, behavioral therapy, holistic treatments, and support groups.

Effective treatment approaches for older adults include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Group process sessions
  • One-on-one counseling
  • Medical care
  • Psychiatric care
  • Marital and family therapy
  • Case management
  • Community outreach resources

With comprehensive support, seniors can recover from addiction and enjoy retirement in a healthy, happy way.

Find Help Now

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, know that help is available. Here at ARISE Treatment Center, our main goal is to provide exceptional long-term wellness to our clients as well as their families.

We understand that addiction affects everyone differently, which is why we offer comprehensive individualized plans of care that are tailored to meet each client’s specific needs. Regardless of your age, background, or substance abuse history, you deserve customized treatment.

Our qualified admissions counselors are available 24 hours a day to assess your needs, verify your insurance, and help you choose the right treatment program. Call today to get started.


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