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Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults

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Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse and Addiction

According to research conducted in recent years, there has been a rise in drug and alcohol use among older adults, particularly Baby Boomers.

Navigation: What is Drug Addiction?, Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults, Why Do Older Adults Abuse Drugs?, Which Drugs Are Most Commonly Used by Older Adults?, How to Help an Older Loved One Struggling with Drug Abuse and Addiction, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


When we say “substance abuse”, we usually think about teens and younger adults. However, older adults are not immune to drug and alcohol abuse. They have the same risk of developing addiction as everyone else.

As we all know, substance abuse refers to the harmful or excessive use of drugs or alcohol, leading to negative consequences on a person’s physical and mental health. It can also affect their relationships, finances, career, and every other aspect of their life, especially if it turns into a full-blown addiction.

Substance use disorders are not limited to illicit drug use. It also applies to people who take too many prescription drugs. An addicted individual will keep taking their substance of choice even when they are already experiencing its adverse effects.

An older adult can still suffer from the effects of drug or alcohol addiction. Because of their age, the effects may have an even greater impact on their physical and mental health.

According to research conducted in recent years, there has been a rise in drug and alcohol use among older adults, particularly Baby Boomers. Statistics also show that widowers from 75 years and upward turn to alcohol abuse to manage their grief.

Since the effects of substance abuse can be life-threatening, it is important to know what signs to watch out for if you think a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder. Let’s take a closer look.


What is Drug Addiction?

Before we dive into that, let’s discuss drug addiction first. What exactly is it? Drug addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is a complex and chronic condition characterized by the compulsive and uncontrollable use of drugs despite harmful consequences.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), addiction is considered a brain disorder because drugs can alter the brain’s structure and function, leading to intense cravings, dependence, and difficulty in controlling drug use.

Addiction can involve various substances, including illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine, as well as legal substances such as alcohol, nicotine, prescription medications, or even over-the-counter drugs. Abusing illicit drugs is just as dangerous as prescription drug abuse.

Individuals with addiction often have an overwhelming urge to use drugs, even if they want to stop or are already suffering from the consequences of their drug use. Because of intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms, they find it challenging to regulate or limit their intake. This is referred to as drug dependence or physical dependence.

Drug dependence is when the body adapts to the drug’s presence and requires it to function normally. Additionally, psychological dependence develops when an individual believes they need the drug to cope with daily life or experience pleasure.

When a drug dependent person stops using drugs after a period of heavy and prolonged use, they may experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, depending on the type of drug used and the person’s specific condition.

Over time, people with addiction may develop tolerance, which means they need to take higher doses of the drug just to achieve the same effects. This contributes to escalating drug use and increases the risk of overdose.

Drug addiction can lead to physical health problems, mental health disorders, financial difficulties, legal issues, and problems with personal relationships. This applies regardless of the person’s age. This is why we need to understand the different signs and symptoms of substance use disorder in older adults.


Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults

Substance abuse and addiction can affect people of any age, including older adults. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and addiction in this population is crucial for early intervention and appropriate support.

If an older loved one—let’s say a senior citizen—is abusing drugs or alcohol, it can be more difficult to spot the usual signs and symptoms. Sometimes their behavior will be chalked up to old age or attributed to some co-occurring disorder like depression or dementia. In other cases, people don’t even stop to consider that drug addiction can develop for someone in an advanced age group. But senior citizens can get addicted too.

Older people who are addicted are more likely to take drugs at home than in public. If they are drinking alcohol or using drugs, they may choose not to participate in family activities and other social events.

Loved ones and caregivers are usually the first to notice physical and behavioral changes that may be linked to substance use disorder. First, the addicted person may display physical changes such as bloodshot eyes, frequent nosebleeds (in the case of cocaine abuse), unexplained weight loss or gain, poor hygiene, or skin infections.

Older adults may also display significant cognitive impairment. They may experience memory loss, confusion, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in overall cognitive function. They will also be more anxious, depressed, or have trouble concentrating on tasks.

Neglecting responsibilities is another common sign of substance abuse. The addicted person will forget about their usual responsibilities such as household chores and personal finances. They may even stop caring about their health and well-being. You may notice changes in self-care and hygiene.

Some addicted people also experience disruptions in their sleep patterns. They may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Alternatively, they may also sleep excessively.

Substance abuse can cause significant mood swings. Older adults may exhibit increased irritability, anxiety, depression, or sudden shifts in their mood. If they are usually joyful but are now always angry, it may be a sign of substance use disorder. Look more closely into inexplicable mood shifts as there may be a valid explanation. Either that or it can be a symptom of drug or alcohol abuse.

The addicted individual will make even more noticeable changes in their social life, so keep an eye out on who they are spending time with. They will either change their circle of friends, or they may start isolating themselves from friends and family members. An addicted person will usually lose interest in things they used to enjoy.

Everything will take a backseat to their substance use disorder.

Older adults grappling with substance abuse may avoid social interactions and spend excessive amounts of time alone. They may even become secretive about their activities in an attempt to hide evidence of their substance use. When questioned about their behaviors, they will become defensive.

Eventually, the effects of their substance use disorder will surface. It will be hard for them to hide the health effects of addiction. They may experience unexplained chronic pain, deteriorating health, and frequent accidents or injuries.

But at the same time, they will also encounter financial problems because of the amount of money they have to spend on acquiring drugs and alcohol.

When it comes to older adults, they have the tendency to develop substance use disorders because of medication misuse. They may misuse prescription opioids or combine alcohol with other substances—both of which are dangerous and may result in serious adverse reactions or complications.

Some older adults with substance use disorders will attempt “doctor shopping” wherein they visit multiple doctors to get the same prescription medication repeatedly.

It’s important to note that these signs and symptoms can also be indicative of other physical or mental health conditions. Whether it’s drug addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD), it is important to watch out for these signs and symptoms so that you can help your loved one before their condition gets even worse.

If you suspect substance abuse or addiction in your loved one, it is recommended to seek professional help from healthcare providers or addiction specialists who can conduct a thorough assessment and provide appropriate support and treatment.

Why Do Older Adults Abuse Drugs?

Older adults have several reasons and opportunities to misuse drugs and alcohol. For example, many senior citizens have access to a high number of medicines for various conditions like high blood pressure, back pain, arthritis, etc. This gives them the chance to use and abuse drugs even when not prescribed.

While prescription pain medications can be a helpful treatment, some individuals may misuse or abuse their medications, leading to elderly substance abuse.

An elderly person who is taking opioids for pain relief is at risk of developing addiction. The same can be said for any other painkiller, which can cause addiction due to too much consumption of pain-relieving drugs.

Oftentimes grief is a powerful motivator for substance use disorders. The loss of a loved one or a pet that they consider to be a significant member of the family can fuel the desire to cope through substances. If their lost loved one is someone who is close to them in age or suffering from a similar disease, the impact could be even greater.

Retirement from a career or profession that motivated them and gave them a sense of purpose for many years may also lead to substance use. Similarly, losing their old home, lifestyle, or independence may have the same adverse effect.

The transition into retirement can lead to a loss of purpose, social isolation, and decreased mental stimulation. Some people may resort to drugs or alcohol to fill these voids or to cope with the stress associated with major life changes.

Losing anything valuable, whether it’s a close friend or a career can lead someone to abuse drugs and alcohol to try to manage their pain.

Some people turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of self-medication to cope with emotional or psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, or loneliness. Substance abuse may temporarily alleviate these symptoms, but this effect is temporary. It can even create a cycle of dependency.

Older adults may also be less informed about the risks associated with drug abuse or may underestimate the potential harm. This lack of awareness can contribute to experimentation or continued drug use.

Changes brought in during late adulthood could be abrupt and difficult to adjust to. This is why people who develop drug or alcohol abuse habits later in life may struggle to control their intake.

Interestingly, some seniors start their addiction journey in nursing homes. This is especially true when it comes to alcohol addiction.

Addiction is not exclusive to any particular age group. Even older adults are at risk of the severe health consequences of addiction. Treatment may require specialized intervention and support.

Which Drugs Are Most Commonly Used by Older Adults?

While anyone of any age can abuse drugs and alcohol, here are some of the most popular substances among the older demographic:

Alcohol: Although many people don’t consider alcohol a drug, alcoholism is a common issue. Alcohol is commonly accessible and legal to drink, and just like any other drug, it releases dopamine into the brain. Because it can reduce anxiety and limit your inhibitions, it is sometimes called the “social drug”. Alcohol can help people relax in social settings. As for older adults, alcohol can also help them relax and forget about their stressors.

The risk factor for substance abuse in older adults is damaging, and addiction to alcohol leads to a variety of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol abuse can lead to various health problems including liver disease, cardiovascular problems, and increased risk of accidents and falls.

Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive drugs that are commonly prescribed to treat various conditions such as anxiety disorders, insomnia, seizures, and muscle spasms. They work by enhancing the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which helps to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety.

While benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium can be effective and safe when used as prescribed, they also carry the risk of dependence, tolerance, and potential for abuse. Some older adults may abuse benzodiazepines for several reasons including anxiety, sleep issues, loneliness, and the misconception that it is safe to misuse.

Opioids: Opioids are a class of drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain. They include both prescription medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, as well as illegal drugs like heroin. Opioids bind to specific receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body, reducing the perception of pain and producing feelings of pleasure and relaxation.

While opioids can be effective for managing acute pain or chronic pain in certain situations, they also carry a high risk of misuse and addiction, especially for older adults who are taking them for pain relief.

Prescription Stimulants: Prescription stimulants are medications that are typically prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. They work by increasing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain that help with focus, attention, and alertness.

When it comes to older adults, some of them may abuse stimulants to increase their energy or simply for recreational purposes.

Regardless of the substance abused, it is important to seek proper medical treatment for your loved one if you suspect that they are developing an addiction. There’s a proper way to support an older loved one struggling with substance abuse, and it’s important to learn all about it.

How to Help an Older Loved One Struggling with Drug Abuse and Addiction

For family members who are over 65 and struggling with substance abuse, there are plenty of recovery centers out there that offer addiction treatment for older adults.

Helping an older loved one who is struggling with drug addiction can be a challenging and sensitive situation. Here are some steps you can take to provide support:

Educate yourself: Learn about the specific substance(s) your loved one is using, their effects, and the signs of addiction. Understanding the nature of addiction will help you approach the situation with empathy and knowledge.

Open communication: Initiate a conversation with your loved one in a non-judgmental and compassionate manner. Express your concerns and observations, emphasizing that you are there to support them. Use “I” statements to avoid sounding accusatory or confrontational.

Offer empathy and understanding: Understand that addiction is a complex issue, and your loved one may be experiencing shame, guilt, or denial. Show empathy by listening without judgment, validating their feelings, and expressing your genuine concern for their well-being.

Encourage professional help: Suggest that they seek professional assistance from a substance abuse counselor, therapist, or addiction specialist. Offer to help them find appropriate resources, such as treatment centers or support groups. It may be beneficial to have a list of options readily available.

Support their decision to change: Remember that recovery is a personal choice, and your loved one must be ready to make that commitment. Encourage their willingness to seek help, but avoid pushing them beyond their readiness. Offer your support regardless of their decision, reinforcing that you are there for them.

Create a supportive environment: Minimize triggers and temptations by removing drugs or alcohol from the home. Encourage healthy activities and social connections that can provide positive influences and distractions. Offer to accompany them to support group meetings or therapy sessions if they are open to it.

Take care of yourself: Supporting someone with addiction can be emotionally challenging. Make sure to prioritize your own well-being by seeking support for yourself. Consider joining a support group for families and friends of individuals struggling with addiction.

Encourage healthy habits: Promote a healthy lifestyle by encouraging nutritious eating, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. These habits can contribute to their health and wellness during the recovery process.

Set boundaries: While providing support, it’s important to establish boundaries to protect your own well-being. Clearly communicate your limits and stick to them. This may involve refusing to enable their addictive behavior or avoiding situations that could be detrimental to your own emotional health.

Celebrate milestones and successes: Acknowledge and celebrate your loved one’s progress, no matter how small. Recognizing their achievements can provide encouragement and motivation to continue on the path to recovery.

Remember, addiction is a complex issue, and professional guidance is often necessary. Encourage your loved one to seek the help of healthcare professionals who specialize in addiction treatment. Look for a rehab near you today and help your loved one get started on the road to recovery.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.



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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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