When you imagine a person with a substance abuse disorder, you may imagine an older teenager or young adult. However, addiction does not play favorites. It can affect anyone of any age, and older adults are vulnerable. As just one sad example, the population segment most likely to suffer from alcohol addiction is widowers over age 75.

What is more, addiction can cause more far-reaching effects in older adults because their metabolisms are typically slower, and they are likelier to take several prescription medications regularly.

People age 65-plus make up about 13 percent of the population, yet 40 percent of prescription drugs in the United States are used by this segment of the population. Many of the health problems experienced by older adults, such as chronic pain and insomnia, are treated with prescription medications that can cause addiction.

The most commonly abused drugs among older adults are narcotic painkillers, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. Add in the fact that many older people regularly use over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements which may have unpredictable interactions with prescription drugs and it is clear why addiction among the elderly is a serious problem.

Misdiagnosis of Substance Abuse Disorders in Older Adults

Substance abuse disorders are often misdiagnosed in older adults, and this can present a huge barrier to receiving addiction treatment. The symptoms of alcohol or drug addiction in older people often mimic those of common medical disorders including diabetes, depression, and dementia. Many doctors work under the same assumption as most people, thinking of addicts as generally being younger.

Many older adults feel a strong sense of stigma surrounding substance abuse disorders, likely because they may have grown up being told that these illnesses were due to character defects or lack of personal strength. Unfortunately, there is also the mindset among some people that addiction treatment simply is not worthwhile for older adults, since they are closer to the end of their lives anyway. However, addiction treatment is possible for older adults and can be remarkably successful, restoring a much higher quality of life in these individuals.

Signs of Drug Abuse Among Older Adults

The signs of substance abuse disorders in the elderly may be subtler than in younger people, but they can be detected with care and observation. Signs may include:

  • Drinking while alone, or as a dinnertime ritual
  • Reduced interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Combining alcohol with prescription drugs despite warning labels
  • Slurring speech, the smell of alcohol, or changes in personal appearance or grooming
  • Hostility and memory problems
  • Receiving the same prescription from multiple doctors
  • Annoyance when discussing their medication use
  • Hiding and hoarding medications

Generally speaking, alcohol and drug abuse affects older people more severely and is more debilitating. Furthermore, the risk of harmful drug interactions is greater in this age group.

Helping the Senior You Love with Addiction Treatment

It is never easy to broach the subject of substance abuse disorder, especially with a parent or other older loved one. But treatment is well worthwhile, adding considerably to life quality whatever the age of the addict. Treatment philosophies must be respectful, must consider possible cognitive changes associated with aging, and must preserve the person’s dignity.

As you help your older loved one, it is important that you stay connected and understand what medications he or she is supposed to be taking, how often, and in what amounts. In some cases, you may have to control access to medications, and in cases where the underlying problem is chronic pain, it may be worthwhile to consult with a doctor specializing in pain management without narcotics.

Addiction treatment for older adults is similar to that for younger adults. Addiction support groups can be tremendously helpful, particularly if they are attended by other senior adults. Individual therapy can also be a helpful component of addiction treatment. Inpatient addiction treatment at a rehab facility is an option for many older adults.

Substance abuse disorders are increasing in the elderly population, and that trend is expected to continue as the huge baby boomer generation reaches retirement age. Many people mistakenly believe that addiction treatment is not worth the effort for older adults, or think that behavioral or coordination changes in the senior adult they love are due to the aging process. Addiction treatment has much to offer older adults, and if you would like to learn more, we encourage you to reach out and contact us at any time. 

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.