Addiction in senior citizens is not only difficult to recognize, but people over 65 with addiction can experience ageism from society, their loved ones and health care providers.

Addiction doesn’t discriminate, but societal perception can. In a recent study conducted by The Recovery Village, approximately 400 participants were surveyed in an effort to better understand the public’s perception of senior citizens and their addiction to alcohol and drugs. When most people think of the age demographic that is most affected by addiction, they typically associate substance misuse with young adults. In fact, according to the survey conducted by The Recovery Village, 51 percent of participants believed that young adults (ages 20-35 years old) were the most impacted by drug and alcohol addiction. Even 36.7 percent of participants over the age of 54 chose young adults as the group that they believe struggles with addiction the most.

However, according to a recent study published in American Journal of Public Health, young adults aren’t the only age group coping with addictions to alcohol and drugs. The study found that in addition to millenials, baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) have been most affected by the national opioid epidemic. Prescription painkillers and alcohol are among the two most commonly misused substances by people over the age of 65 years old.  

Senior citizens are often left out of the conversation involving substance misuse and treatment for addiction. According to the survey conducted by The Recovery Village, 33.5 percent of participants reported that the reason they believe senior citizens are often unaccounted for during conversations regarding addiction is that the media and society focus on younger generations and groups. Of the participants over the age of 54 years old, 27 percent (out of 128 participants) agreed that the media excludes senior citizens from discussions about addiction treatment.

Addiction in senior citizens is not only difficult to recognize, but people over 65 years old struggling with a substance use disorder often face ageism from society, their loved ones and their health care providers. Due to negligence from ageism, and the side effects of aging, someone over the age of 65 might not even be aware they’re facing a substance addiction.

How Substance Use Disorders Are Different for Senior Citizens

Everyone’s addiction story is different, how a person becomes addicted to a substance is as unique as they are. However, in most cases younger adults or even adolescents become addicted to substances or alcohol in a nightlife or party scene. In other words, adolescents and young adults often choose to misuse illicit drugs, prescription painkillers and alcohol, whereas senior citizens often use prescription painkillers to help manage chronic pain. They also may mix medications or take a higher dose than they’re supposed to, either because they forgot what their original dose was or they could be self-medicating. There is also the instance of senior citizens who misused substances recreationally as a youth and they have remained addicted even as they age. In other cases, a senior citizen may have previously received treatment for an addiction earlier in their life and experience a setback as they age and stress increases.

Senior Citizens may choose to misuse substances as well, they may feel a loss of self-worth now that they are retired and have more time on their hands. Addiction typically thrives on the lack of structure and accountability, some senior citizens find themselves with nothing to do and this can cause them to intentionally choose to misuse substances instead of seeking alternative methods of dealing with the open availability.

While it’s never a good idea to combine sedatives and opioid prescriptions, people over the age of 65 are often more at risk for serious health conditions when they misuse drugs and alcohol compared to people who are younger. Senior citizens are commonly prescribed multiple medications for various health issues, this can lead to them intentionally or accidentally mixing these prescriptions with other substances that can cause an overdose or organ damage. Mixing prescriptions with alcohol also puts senior citizens at a higher risk of an overdose and the development or decline of a chronic disease.

For the most part, the medical community has become more aware of the opioid epidemic and as a result have recognized a greater need for caution in prescribing opioid painkillers, especially for those patients over the age of 65. According to the new guidelines opioids should be prescribed for short periods of time and used only to ease acute pain like after a surgery. The new guidelines don’t necessarily address the seniors who have been using these medications for decades.

People who have substance use disorders and are over 65 years old may not recognize that they have an addiction. Senior citizens who are aware of their addiction may feel shame or embarrassment for seeking treatment for their substance use disorder. According to the Recovery Village survey, 59.5 percent of participants reported that a senior citizen they knew had a substance use disorder did not seek treatment for their addiction. Having an addiction this late in life (particularly if it’s a senior’s first addiction) can feel embarrassing for someone who may already feel self-conscious about their age.

How Addiction Treatment is Different for Senior Citizens 

Similar to how addiction is different for senior citizens, addiction treatment for people over the age of 65 differs as well. Treatment for senior citizens is often effective, but there are specialized treatment options for older adults. For example, age-specific addiction support groups are formed in order for senior citizens to become a source of motivation for their peers and find support from individuals who are struggling with the similar disorders and experiencing the same hardships. In a general-age support group, seniors may feel as if they are a parental or even grandparent figure who takes the role of helping others instead of receiving help and support for their own addiction.

Addiction treatment for senior citizens may still use similar methods like cognitive behavioral theory, however, the groups will often be smaller to create a more personal atmosphere. In addition to shame or embarrassment a senior may feel in treatment, they may also be experiencing decreased hearing and sight ability. By having a smaller therapy group, it allows seniors to feel involved and at their own pace. Clinics will often have to conscious of how loudly and the speed at which they are talking and any pamphlets or literature will probably need to be printed in larger than normal font.  

Senior citizens tend to be more compliant and participate more during treatment than younger people. However, people who are 65 years old and older still struggle with treatment and recovery. They still experience a very overwhelming fear of loneliness and aging. These feelings can often cause setbacks in a senior citizen’s recovery, so developing a strong support network is important. Inpatient treatment is often the most recommended treatment method for seniors because the complications are significantly increased for older people during the detoxification process.

While medical detox is recommended for any age due to health complications like seizures and dehydration, seniors are at heightened risk of experiencing life-threatening complications during detox. If you or someone you know is over the age of 65 and struggling with a substance use disorder, help can’t wait. You don’t have to deal with addiction alone, call and speak with a representative about how treatment can start you on the path to recovery. The call is free, confidential and there is no obligation to enroll.

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By – Jennifer Kopf
Jennifer Kopf is a Florida-based writer who likes to balance creative writing with helpful and informative pieces. Her passion for helping people has translated into writing about the importance of treatment for substance use and mental health disorders. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.