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Tackling the Growing Problem of Drug Abuse in Older People



Drug Abuse in Older People


~by Lily McCann
Recognizing the signs of alcoholism or other addictions in ourselves, or others, is always difficult, but there is one segment of the population in which the signs may be particularly easy to overlook. Older people are increasingly likely to be affected by addiction, but their needs are often missed because of the assumption that addiction is something that only affects younger people. While it is true that addiction most often develops in younger people, it can also arise later in life— in older people, particularly if they are coping with major life changes or taking large numbers of medications.

Drug Abuse in Older People: A Growing Problem

The Department of Health and Human Services states that the number of admissions to hospital of people between the ages of 65 and 84 for substance abuse rose by 96% between 1997 and 2008. For over 85s, it rose by 87% over the same period, and the problem is continuing to grow. An estimated 17% of over 60s currently abuse substances including prescription medications, but the Hazelden treatment group estimates that this number could double by 2020.

Why Are Older People at Risk?

Older people can be particularly vulnerable to alcoholism and other forms of addiction because of many potentially stressful life changes that happen as we age. Psychguides describes these changes in terms of their effect on our mental health, suggesting that they can increase the risk of depression, which affects about 6.5 million over 65s in the US. The same causes can also increase our susceptibility to addiction.

One of the most obvious transitions that we make as we age is the entry into retirement. Retiring can be a very positive experience, but it can also be difficult to adjust if we have focused our identities and self-esteem around our careers. The aging process itself also brings changes. We can find ourselves losing confidence, mobility or the ability to participate in the leisure activities that we once enjoyed. We may move into a retirement community, nursing home or find ourselves housebound by ill health. It can become more difficult for us to maintain contact with friends and family.

Many of us will have to cope with bereavement in our old age. We may begin to look for solace in dangerous places, or simply end up relying on prescription medications that we don’t really need.


Prescription Drugs and Juggling Medications

Abuse of prescription medications is a growing problem for people of all ages, but older people can be particularly at risk of misusing these drugs. As we grow older, we are more likely to be prescribed potentially addictive medications. We may end up taking multiple medications, over extended periods, with little coordination between the various medical professionals who are writing the prescriptions. It can be all too easy for a problem to develop before anyone realizes what is happening. According to MUST for Seniors, approximately two thirds of prescriptions given to older patients may be unnecessary, unsafe or for a dose that is too high, and 76% of seniors may have difficulty understanding the medical information they are given.

However, the risk of addiction to today’s older people does not just come from prescribed medications. As the Baby Boomer Generation grows older, they approach old age with a different (more relaxed) attitude concerning drugs and alcohol than that of their predecessors. The NIH is concerned that this could lead to a greater number of addiction problems in the older population. The impact will only be exacerbated by the fact that as we age, our bodies find it harder to cope with the effects of alcohol and other addictive substances.

Drug Abuse in Older People: How to Help

Awareness that addiction can affect older people as well as younger generations is an important step toward ensuring that everyone who needs help will one day, have appropriate resources available to them. If you are concerned about a loved one, there are steps you can take. The same advice that applies to addiction and recovery for other age groups can guide you through the process of finding help. It is also important to keep in mind the special circumstances that may have affected your older friend or relative such as confusion or not understanding. If you are concerned about their prescriptions, you might want to arrange for a medical professional to review all of the dosages, for both their prescription and over the counter medications, to identify any issues.

Raising the topic of addiction with an older relative or parent can be very difficult but it is important to speak up if you are concerned. Assuming that older addicts cannot be helped, that they may be too set in their ways to change or that it is too late to do anything is a mistake.

Eliminating prescription medication problems and treating addictions can have significant effects on an older person’s health, cognition and independence. Some of the symptoms that we may have attributed to getting older, such as confusion, anxiousness or memory loss, can even turn out to have been caused by the addiction. Drug abuse in older people CAN be terminated. Never give up on your loved one.


1. “Curbing Prescription Drug Abuse in Medicare,” US Department of Health and Human Services, accessed March 20, 2014, http://www.hhs.gov/asl/testify/2013/06/4483.html.
2. “Substance abuse among the elderly: a growing problem,” Hazelden, accessed March 20, 2014, http://www.hazelden.org/web/public/ade60220.page.
3. “Living with Depression in Older Adults,” Psychguides, accessed March 20, 2014, http://www.psychguides.com/guides/living-with-depression-in-older-adults/.
4. “Prescription drugs are increasingly taken as primary drugs of abuse,” Drug Addiction Help Now, accessed March 20, 2014, http://www.drug-addiction-help-now.org/prescription-drugs/prescription-drugs.
5. “Fact Sheet: Medicine Use and Older Adults,” MUST for Seniors, accessed March 20, 2014, http://www.mustforseniors.org/documents/must_factsheet.pdf.
6. “Illicit Drug Abuse,” NIH Senior Health, accessed March 20, 2014, http://nihseniorhealth.gov/drugabuse/illicitdrugabuse/01.html.
7. “Preventing and recognizing prescription drug abuse,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, accessed March 20, 2014, http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/prescription-drugs-abuse-addiction/preventing-recognizing-prescription-drug-abuse.
8. “Substance Abuse and Misuse Among Older Adults,” Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, accessed March 20, 2014, http://www.gmhfonline.org/gmhf/consumer/factsheets/substnabuse_factsheet.html.



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