When Seniors turn to Drugs

Whether it’s out of boredom, revisiting their youth or to relieve pain, seniors turn to drugs for many reasons. They might hearken back to the times of their youth and try smoking pot again, or a legitimate prescription can turn into a growing dependence on pain relievers. Whatever the reason or the drug some of the statistics are alarming.

According to a new study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 4.3 million seniors use illegal drugs. This is close to 5% of the senior adult population. Unfortunately, it’s expected that number will increase 150% by the year 2020, with most abuse consisting of marijuana and prescription medications.


According to the SAMHSA study, the number of people aged 50 and older reporting marijuana use in the prior year increased from 1.9% in 2002 to 2.9% in 2008. For 55-59 year olds, it went to 5.1%.  Reasons cited for drug use includes boredom, curiosity, “reliving the past,” and other seemingly benign reasons.  Additionally, many seniors seek relief from the discomforts of aging such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other aches and pains by self-medicating with illicit drugs.  (Illicit drugs includes any prescription drug that is not used in accordance with its labeling or by the person for whom it was prescribed.)

Prescription Drugs

Some of the most common drugs abused by seniors include prescription drugs like Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan. Opiate-based drugs are a favorite of some seniors and include drugs like Percocet, Vicodin, Lortab, Oxycontin and other painkillers, as well as powerful opiate-based narcotics like methadone and morphine. To complicate matters, seniors often take these drugs with alcohol or in combination with other prescription drugs.

As with marijuana, one of the main reasons cited for substance abuse by seniors is relief from persistent aches and pains and sleeplessness. Unfortunately, many of the drugs used by seniors to alleviate these symptoms and conditions are highly addicting – even when part of a managed medical care program.

Other, more emotional reasons are also cited as to why seniors abuse drugs: depression, loneliness, boredom, retirement anxiety, separation from family and friends or the death of a loved one.

But despite the growing trend in drug use and addiction among seniors, family members are often unaware that there is a problem until it’s too late.  This is because substance abuse in seniors does not often manifest in the same noticeable way as it does with young people and adults, so remaining vigilant is a critical part of prevention, recognition and treatment.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Problems associated with drug abuse among seniors are different than what one might expect among teens or young adults. They can include lower blood pressure, confusion and heart rhythm irregularities. Warning signs of possible substance abuse among seniors include:

  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Irritability and sadness
  • Frequent falls
  • Loss of coordination
  • A desire to be alone
  • Poor hygiene
  • Lack of interest in life
  • Complaints about chronic pain

It can be challenging to convince an elderly person to get treatment, as with all addictions denial is a prominent feature. This is a delicate issue that requires a deft touch including healthy doses of tact and empathy. One effective approach is a medication screening, where medical professionals can rationally intervene.  If a senior loved one in your family is abusing drugs and you’re not sure what to do, call the number at the top of your screen now for an immediate, no-cost obligation.  We can help you develop a plan to address the issue, plan a professional intervention, or help with arranging treatment directly, but we can’t do anything if you don’t call.

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