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Elderly & Addiction


Substance abuse & addiction in the elderly is a growing problem.

Many people tend to focus on the issue of addiction among younger individuals, including children, teens, and college students. However, there is a rather overlooked population with a considerably high potential for substance abuse: the elderly. Older adults are often more likely to become addicted to drugs than younger individuals simply because they are often on several different medications for treatment. And though their drug use can start out safe, it can become problematic over time.

If you or someone you love is an elderly adult suffering from a substance use disorder, it is time to seek help and locate detox and rehab centers near you. Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) now to get help.

The Elderly and Addiction: How and Why It Happens?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, addiction among adults aged 60 and older is one of the fastest growing health epidemics in the country. However, it is also a silent epidemic, as many people do not consider the severity of this problem, or if they do, help is not often sought out.

Many people do not realize that their elderly loved ones are abusing their prescription medications. Older adults are often prescribed addictive drugs like opioids, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications and then start taking them more often because they feel better when they use them. This can lead to addiction.

  • The adult children of these individuals often don’t want to consider the ramifications of their parents’ substance abuse. Even if they do realize what’s going on, they might still hesitate to seek help for their parent. This is often because they are uncomfortable broaching the subject with their parent, because they are embarrassed, or because they would rather let things stay the way they are. Many adults say they didn’t seek help for a parent abusing drugs because they didn’t want to cause problems in their family.

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In other cases, a person may already be addicted to drugs or alcohol and carry this substance use disorder into older age. Alcohol and marijuana are especially serious culprits in these situations.

  • We often do not realize that people with addictions carry them into their later stages of life, rather than stopping their substance abuse when they get older. The older a person gets, the harder it is for them to change.
  • Many individuals in the Baby Boomer generation are of guilty of long-term alcohol or marijuana abuse, and they are expected to carry these issues into old age.

Sometimes, a person’s age can lead to problems with unintentional substance abuse.

  • Many individuals take prescription medications during old age, but cognitive decline and memory loss could cause them to misuse their medications. Intense symptoms of dependence and addiction might begin to set in before they even realize what has happened.

Whatever the reason an individual becomes addicted, older people’s addictions are more often overlooked when compared to the problems of younger individuals. People may see the signs of addiction in an elderly individual, such as a change in eating habits, confusion, etc., and chalk them up to the expected actions of older people. They may say, “Older people are picky about what they like to eat” or “He’s just having a senior moment” and ignore the problem.

An unwillingness to see the truth is has led to many issues with elderly substance abuse. Prescription drug abuse has especially increased among people aged 50 and older, and older individuals are also more likely than younger people to abuse alcohol and prescription medications together (SAMHSA). This combination is said to affect up to 19 percent of older Americans while more than 25 percent are taking medications that could potentially become addictive.

It is time for us to begin to recognize that a person’s age does not protect them from the issue of substance abuse. In many cases, old age can even increase this risk.

Recognizing Addiction in the Elderly

If you have an older loved one, family member, or friend, you may be concerned that they are abusing their prescription medication or perhaps another substance. If you are, it is important to be able to recognize the issue of addiction among elderly people, as well as to take action if you believe you have uncovered this serious problem.

These are the most common signs that someone in their 60s is abusing and addicted to drugs or alcohol.

  • They become sick or experience uncomfortable physical symptoms often.
  • They become angry if you question their use of drugs or alcohol (National Library of Medicine).
  • They act secretively, not wanting to discuss their doctor’s visits, use of medications, etc.
  • They spend lots of time alone and begin to withdraw from others.
  • They exhibit memory and cognitive problems, often ones that come on suddenly or with no explanation.
  • They exhibit changes in their eating and/or sleeping habits.
  • They have trouble keeping clean or with the other aspects of neatness and personal hygiene.
  • They experience mood swings, irritability, depression, and/or anxiety.
  • They become disinterested in activities that used to excite them.
  • They experience chronic discomfort or pain that is unexplainable.
  • They are unable to stop drinking, using drugs, etc., even if they recognize that this use is harming them.

If your loved one begins to display any of these signs, there is a cause for concern that they are misusing drugs or alcohol. Of course, some of these signs can be associated with other problems, which is why it is necessary to consider all the variables. But you must remember that addiction is a serious problem among the elderly, and those who exhibit a number of these signs could potentially be suffering from it.

What Treatment Options Are Available for Elderly People?

The most problematic issue among elderly individuals who suffer from addiction is that the condition usually goes unrecognized. However, if you have been able to recognize this problem in your loved one, it is important that you commit to helping them find treatment. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, though this generation is very different from younger generations, the same treatment options have been proven just as effective for both types of individuals.

Medications can often be a helpful option for substance abuse treatment.

Certain drugs can be used during detox to minimize the experience of withdrawal symptoms, which can be extremely uncomfortable and, in some cases, even life-threatening. This is an effective option for those seeking detox treatment.

  • However, one must not forget that detox itself is not a treatment for addiction and must be followed with rehab (NIDA).

Other medications may be used to maintain the individual. For example, methadone and buprenorphine maintenance have both been found to be helpful to those who have been struggling with opioid abuse.

  • Some individuals decide to stay on methadone indefinitely, as this can be a better choice than being weaned off the drug too early. Your loved one may also need to consider this option.

A large population of people who abuse drugs and alcohol also suffer from mental disorders. Medications can help treat these issues as well as the symptoms of drug abuse.

Behavioral therapies are the most often used treatment options for addiction.

Elderly individuals may be able to benefit from this option, both during detox and rehab, as it will allow them to examine the issues behind their substance abuse.

Behavioral therapies can help patients work through problems that have stayed buried for a long time. It can also help them learn better coping skills for a life in recovery.

Some of the most effective behavioral therapies for addiction treatment include

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • 12-step facilitation therapy
  • Contingency management
  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Family or couples therapy

Some older individuals may also benefit from certain types of treatment programs that offer specific care. For example, some individuals may benefit from treatment in a spiritual detox or rehab center that offers spiritual guidance alongside medical treatment. Others may prefer holistic therapies, such as art or pet therapy, to help them work through their substance use issues and open up more readily.

No matter what the situation, it is important to make sure your loved one gets help in a treatment facility that offers the most effective care for their needs. As stated previously, many people overlook substance abuse in the elderly because they don’t want to make waves. Some may even say they’d prefer not to disturb the individual’s final years. But isn’t it better that your loved one lives their final years as happily and healthily as possible? With addiction treatment, this is more likely, as is a greater addition to those years.

Getting Help for Elderly Adults with Substance Use Disorders

We want to help you locate detox and rehab centers for your loved one today. Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) any time to get the help you need.


  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (1998). Chapter 1- Substance Abuse Among Older Adults: An Invisible Epidemic. 
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Specific Populations and Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse.
  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). Substance Use Disorder.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)- Are there Specific Drug Addiction Treatments for Older Adults?
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction: What Science Says- 8: Medical Detoxification.
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