Getting Help for an Elderly Drug Addict

Senior drug addiction comes has many forms – some have previously been addicted to drugs such as cocaine, heroin or other substances since they were young. Yet another group is addicted to drugs that have been prescribed to them by well-meaning physicians. Others become addicted to alcohol as a result of lifestyle changes during Phase I retirement. But the more commonly found category of elderly drug addicts is those who abuse prescription drugs. Estimates suggest that more than one in ten seniors have misused or abused prescription painkillers or drugs used to treat anxiety or insomnia. In fact, according to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, as many as 17% of adults age 60 and over abuse prescription drugs. Narcotic pain killers, sleeping pills and tranquillizers are common medications of abuse. This indicates that understanding the issues related to the elderly and addiction and alcoholism is critical to help protect this vulnerable group of people.

The elderly are at increased risk of drug addiction because they tend to be more isolated from friends, family, and associates, and they also tend to have better access to prescription pills. Many seniors often use these prescriptions to self medicate, o for recreational purposes. Already at risk as a result of the natural aging process and from the stress of certain lifestyle choices, drug addiction or alcoholism can push an elderly person’s life into a high-risk category for heart failure, liver failure or stroke.

Oftentimes, an older person has been removed from the responsibilities of daily work. Their social support system may not be strong and they may struggle with previously untreated mental and emotional health issues. When they are subsequently given prescription drugs for pain or other physical issues, it becomes far more likely that they will descend into drug addiction as a means of emotional and physical escape.

“The elderly population suffers from pain, insomnia, and psychiatric issues more than the general population. Medications prescribed to treat these problems can be highly addictive. These medications, initially prescribed for legitimate medical reasons, can unintentionally lead to geriatric drug addiction.” (1)

If you are concerned about a parent, grandparent or other senior citizen that you feel has a drug problem, there are a number of things you can do to help alleviate the situation and get the right help as quickly as possible. First, remain vigilant about the senior’s drug use. Research what drugs they are currently prescribed, as well as their uses, common side effects and propensity for abuse. Discuss the dangers of mixing different types of pills, as well as using drugs and alcohol together.

Keep an inventory of the types and dosages of medications. Purchase a pill dispenser to help the senior keep track of how many pills have been taken. Additionally, be aware of behavior or mood changes in your friend, family member or loved one, and particularly take note of any resistance to discussing the amount of prescription drugs or pills they are taking. If you suspect that they are addicted, consult with the primary physician who is providing their care.

Social workers and others in the human services industry can also be another resource for addressing geriatric drug and/or alcohol addiction, as they are generally trained to address the situation from a social, mental, economic and legal standpoint. (2)

Researching drug rehab facilities that have specialized programs to treat senior drug addicts is an essential part of the recovery process. One of the most successful of these facilities in the US is Recovery First’s Inpatient Drug Rehab program, which offers powerful treatment across all demographics. Many insurance programs will pay for inpatient substance abuse treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, medical detox and even day/night treatment or partial hospitalization programs.

Placing a senior in a professional treatment center can often be beneficial, as a team of addiction professionals in one location will all be focused on rehabilitating the addict. This caring community is important at a time of life when older people often desperately crave social companionship and connections.

For older people who are addicted to illegal substances, the problems are exacerbated, as there is a social stigma to drug addiction, as well as the issues of aging:

“Older addicts also find it harder to cope with pain than elderly people who do not take drugs… ‘If someone has been on opiates for years, their tolerance will be higher and they will need higher doses to achieve an analgesic effect. But some doctors don’t realize that. Another big problem is that as people age they inevitably need to take more medicine, particularly if they have health issues. Helping addicts to keep track of complicated regimes can be hard. They just don’t remember to take their pills.'” (3)

Emotional disorders often co-occur with drug addiction, and the elderly are especially prone to these debilitating combinations that include addiction and bipolar disorder, alcoholism and mania, substance abuse and anxiety and many other combinations. However, it is important to note that treatment of the addiction must always take precedent over treatment of the emotional disorder, provided this strategy does not place the patient or others in any physical danger. This is because while emotional disorders can be quite severe, the physical effects of drug use can be deadly and therefore this risk must be mitigated first.

Once an elderly person enters drug rehab, intensive therapies will seek to treat addiction and its triggers, as well as diagnose and properly treat and underlying conditions that may have caused or exacerbated the substance abuse or alcoholism in the first place. Treating an older person in this holistic manner is critical to address all issues connected with the addictive behaviors.

To learn more or to get help right from a professional treatment center, call the number at the top of your screen now. We have addiction experts standing by who can provide you with a free, confidential and no-cost consultation that could mean the difference between surviving the disease of addiction and living freely, or continuing with a life of substance abuse. Don’t wait – call us now.

(1) AgingCare.COM Seniors and Prescription Drug Addiction
Accessed 12/23/2011

(2) Journal of Science RUNNING HEAD: Social Work Practice with the Elderly Substance Abuser Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 3 (2), 85-103
Accessed 12/22/2011

(3) Ford, Matthew Old Habits Die Hard for Aging Addicts The Guardian
Accessed 12/22 and 12/23/2011

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.

You aren't alone. You deserve to get help.
Recovery First is located in Hollywood, Florida, which is easily accessible from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. Our small groups means you get more one-on-one support and make stronger connections with the community. Take the next step toward recovery: learn more about our addiction treatment programs near Florida's Atlantic coast or learn about how rehab is affordable for everyone.