Addiction in Older Adults

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HHRC-Senior man drinking water

When most people think of substance misuse and addiction, they see young adults. While it is true that young people have a higher risk of substance use as a group, data on the older population is, to put it mildly, limited.

Despite a paucity of evidence, it is often assumed that addiction and drug use for adults is a worldwide hidden epidemic.

While no one likes to think of their parents or grandparents having difficulties with drug misuse or addiction, it is critical to look for these issues. This feature will explain the significance of the issue, how to spot the indicators of drug use for adults and addiction, and how to assist.

Substance Abuse Disorder Is a Health Crisis in the Elderly Community

It is a common misconception that older adults do not suffer from substance abuse disorders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that nearly one million seniors over 65 had this disorder in 2014.

The 2015-2016 Medical Expenditure Survey found that 9.8 million older Americans (65+) filled at least one prescription for opioids in the U.S., while 3.6 million (7.1%) had at least four prescriptions. According to the survey, opioid use rose as patients’ health declined to 39.4% in those with poor health, compared to 8.8% in those with excellent health. As they age, people will need more pain relief. However, opioids can be addictive, and anyone who takes them at any age runs the risk of becoming addicted or abused.

Why Is Elderly Substance Abuse and Addiction Ignored and Underreported?

Despite the numbers, there is extremely little study on drug use for adults compared to the number of studies with younger individuals.

According to American Addiction Centers, one probable explanation for the absence of statistics is that those who do not seek or receive proper treatment do not acquire a diagnosis. They cannot be included in the statistics if they do not receive a diagnosis.

They go on to explain why they feel older persons do not seek treatment:

Social Exclusion

First, American Addiction Centers believes that social isolation contributes to the under-recognition and under-reporting of drug addiction in older adults. When people stop working, they don’t necessarily see each other every day. This is especially true for individuals who live alone, far from relatives, and whose acquaintances die as they get older. No one can act if no one notices the emergence of drug abuse problems.


Second, they contend that healthcare providers may be under-diagnosing the problem owing to unconscious ageism. While “ageism” is commonly associated with negative ideas or actions—for example, older persons being dismissed because of their age—it encompasses any situation in which an older person is treated differently than a younger one.

Many behaviors based on age, even if well-intentioned, can be damaging, such as avoiding bringing up substance addiction because of a sense that older persons have earned certain indulgences. Unconscious prejudices affect everyone, even medical professionals.

Concerns About Life Quality

Third, loved ones and caregivers may be concerned about removing substances from elders. This might be due to a desire to avoid unfavorable encounters or a fear that taking away their drug will reduce their quality of life. These anxieties frequently imply that seeking treatment will be discouraged.

Years of Misconception

Of course, years of disinformation have confused and, maybe, a lack of therapy.

Many drug abuse problems begin with casual usage and standard prescription regimens. Seniors and their caregivers might be unaware of a problem because no one informed them what to look for—or they overlook the concerns even if they were told.

Furthermore, many older folks grew up viewing anti-drug propaganda films and being misled about addiction. These videos and teachings stressed the link between morality and substance use, perhaps leading older folks to assume that substance misuse problems make them horrible people. They also tended to depict persons with addictions in exaggerated, panic-inducing ways—typical addiction characteristics were frequently absent.

How Addiction in Older Adults Affects Them

Substance misuse can have a disproportionately harmful impact on older persons due to the inherent physical and mental health issues that come with age.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as we age, we metabolize items we consume more slowly, such as pharmaceuticals or alcohol. As a result, elderly people may be more vulnerable to such drugs.

Substance abuse may also raise the risk of heart and lung disease, mental disorders, cognitive problems, and stroke. Cancer, liver damage, weakened immune systems, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, ulcers, and stroke have all been related to alcohol addiction in older adults. Furthermore, studies have connected the use of benzos to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

There are studies that indicate that half of all the people who qualified for addiction diagnoses in their teens and twenties were aging out of addiction. However, this doesn’t conclusively mean that addiction in the elderly is less probable.

Substance Abuse in Older Adults

These are the causes of substance abuse in older adults:

1. Chronic pain or illness

Many people turn to potentially addictive medication for chronic pain and illnesses.

2. Neglect

Elder abuse can take many forms. This could include physical, sexual, and financial abuse. Or neglect by a designated caregiver. Neglecting to take care of your loved ones could lead to dependency and medication misuse.

3. Life changes

Bereavement, loneliness, isolation, and loss of mobility can all result in the need to find coping strategies like alcohol use. The changes can also lead to mental health problems leading to substance abuse disorder.

4. Mental health challenges

Substance abuse can also be connected to stressors and other conditions linked to aging. As previously said, the quick pace of life changes may frequently lead to sadness and anxiety, and persons suffering from these or other mental health issues are more likely to develop drug use disorders.

How to Help Seniors With Substance Abuse or Addiction Problems

It can be challenging to recognize that a loved one may be struggling with addiction. Recognizing that there may be a problem is the first step in helping your loved one overcome it. To help someone with substance abuse disorder, both caregivers and medical professionals are essential.

1. Be kind, compassionate, and honest.

They might be more willing to listen to your concerns if you genuinely love them.

2. Don’t blame the person.

Addiction in older adults isn’t a choice. It’s a disease that should be treated.

3. Keep an eye on them if they are in long-term care.

Talk to their caregivers and find out about the support available. Then, decide if it’s right for them.

4. Talk to a doctor.

There are limitations on what your loved ones’ doctor can tell you. You may consider consulting a substance abuse professional or physician specializing in older adults. These professionals can help you ask the right questions and guide you in approaching your loved ones.

How To Get Help if You Have a Substance Abuse or Addiction Issue

Recognizing signs of drug addiction in adults and yourself is important. It’s not something you have to deal with alone. You are not the only one who is battling this disease. These are the ways you can get the help that you need.

  • Learn more about addiction
  • Speak to a trusted healthcare professional
  • Talk with your loved ones
  • Contact a substance abuse hotline

Seek Help Now

The alarming rate at which people aged 65 and up acquire addictions to various drugs is cause for concern and should not be overlooked by medical professionals, caregivers, or family members.

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one’s substance misuse or addiction, we encourage seeking assistance from a rehab for seniors as soon as possible. Substance misuse, if left untreated, can have long-term and perhaps fatal repercussions. Remember that you are not alone!

Haven House Recovery is a recognized Nashville rehab for seniors that’s ready to assist and support you and your loved one. The sooner you get help, the sooner your loved one will be able to return to a happy, healthy, and meaningful life. Contact us now!

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