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Substance Abuse and Addiction in the Elderly Population

As reported in 2018, about 1 million adults over the age of 65 live with a substance use disorder.

Substance abuse in the elderly is more common than you think. We’re typically concerned about controlling drugs and alcohol in younger populations. While this is important, we neglect to help an entire age group at times.

Addiction in aging adults may happen for a number of reasons, including generational cycles or not knowing how to properly handle stress at work or home. No matter the cause, addiction in senior citizens is something serious we all need to talk about.

If you’d like to learn more, keep reading below. We’ve provided a quick guide filled with important information.

Table of Contents

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse, or drug addiction, is the inability to assert control over one’s use of drugs or alcohol. It’s typically due to major changes in behavior or brain chemistry.

Drug addiction is a slippery slope that usually starts at recreational use and interest. Depending on the drug and dose used in the beginning, addictions may build over time or happen very quickly. For example, opioids are highly addictive, and people form addictions quickly when using them.

Addiction will increase if a person’s tolerance to a drug grows. Tolerance is the reduction of reaction to a set dosage of a substance. In order to reach a desired level of reaction, someone must use a higher dosage of the drug.

Why Does It Start?

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive reason as to why senior citizen addiction, or addiction of any kind, starts. There are a variety of common reasons that could lead to addiction.

A huge reason we might see addiction in aging adults is using drugs to cope with health or pain-related issues. Senior citizens can become addicting to the pain medicine they’re taking, or they might turn to alcohol to numb themselves to physical ailments.

Aging adults might also start heavily using drugs when trying to cope with stress at home or work. Stressful home and work environments leave people feeling anxious or angry, and many find quick relief in substances.

Generational cycles of substances or pressure from friends and family also play a huge role in substance abuse disorders. It can be hard to break free from a cycle, especially if it’s something the adult witnessed within their home as a child.

Isolation is another huge cause of addiction in older age groups. Elderly adults use drugs to fill emotional voids. They’re alone more often, so they seek out substances in hopes to find nurturing and happiness.

How Does the Cycle Continue?

The cycle of senior citizen addiction continues for many reasons, and it’s important we start to address them.

A huge reason this cycle continues is due to the fact many senior citizens are able to hide it better than young adults. They’re isolated, living away from the majority of their family, and are often retired. There are fewer opportunities for people to notice they’re struggling.

While money may run out quickly as they continue their substance use, it’s easier for older adults to continue an addiction because they’re typically more secure in finances due to retirement and savings. Their savings may quickly dwindle if they are frequent drug users.

Lack of education and resources directed specifically at aging adults with addiction is another reason as to why these cycles continue. They may not know how to reach out or where to go. The stigma around drug addiction may also stop them.

Signs to Look For

It’s heartbreaking to find out someone you love has a substance use disorder. You may feel foolish for not knowing, and many people feel overwhelming guilt for not helping sooner. While it’s never your fault, there are signs to look for so you can help.

If you notice someone you love has been significantly more isolated or detached lately, reach out to them. They may be coming to fewer family functions, ignoring your phone calls, or neglecting to show up to commitments.

Another major sign of addiction in aging adults is a sudden lack of care for themselves or their environment. Those suffering from addiction may stop frequently showering or grooming themselves, and they might find themselves neglecting to grocery shop or pay bills.

You might also notice irrational, sporadic behavior from them. They might experience serious mood swings, and they could appear constantly on edge.

If you suspect anything, keep an eye out. Reach out to them if you feel comfortable doing so.

Symptoms Caused by Substance Use Disorder

Many times it’s difficult to notice you’re struggling from addiction once you’re deep into the cycle. If you suspect you’ve become dependent on alcohol or other substances, there are some symptoms you can check for.

First, check-in with your physical health. Have you lost a large amount of weight in a short amount of time? When you’re not using substances, do you experience heavy sweating or heart palpitations?

Substance use disorder could also increase the chance of insomnia and irritability. If you notice spotty memory and unexplained bruises, you could be suffering from frequent, dangerous blackouts.

Being honest with yourself is crucial when looking for symptoms. If at any point you’ve found yourself detaching from loved ones or hiding your pills, it’s best to seek help.

Social and Economic Consequences

On top of a number of physical side effects, drug addictions have great social and economic consequences. Unfortunately, some of these consequences are great enough to negatively affect the remainder of someone’s life.

A major consequence is the loss of trust from friends and family. Those struggling with substance abuse become more irritable and more likely to cut off those closest to them. Your children and grandchildren may start to separate themselves from you in order to preserve their own mental wellbeing.

You’ll also start finding yourself in greater debt as the addiction grows. Sadly, many people put themselves into financial holes in order to feed their addiction. This debt can cause you to be in trouble with your bank and your spouse.

All of these consequences contribute to the scary cycle of addiction. Greater isolation and debt result in higher chances of anxiety, depression, or suicide ideation. People often turn to substances in an attempt to fix these feelings.

Common Addictions in the Elderly

There are some heavily common addictions in the elderly, including alcohol, marijuana, and prescription medication. It’s important to be aware of the possible substances being used.

If anyone you know is abusing any of the below substances, they’ll need to seek help. Treatment options are discussed later in the reading.


Alcohol has proven to be the most commonly used substance in older adults. Although, when we dive deeper into the prevalence of SUD in aging adults, we see greater harm due to at-risk drinking.

At-risk drinking occurs when there are pre-existing health complications that can worsen due to the use of alcohol. Alcohol can suppress breathing or cause a racing heart.

Because many elderly adults take prescription medication, drinking while actively being on medication can easily produce health risks. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Symptoms of alcohol abuse to look out for include slurred speech and bruises from falls during blackouts.

Illicit Drugs

We’ve also seen that American older adults are more likely to struggle with heavy illicit drug use than other adults around the world. Illicit drug use includes the use of illegal, highly addictive drugs.

Popular illicit drugs in elderly adults include marijuana and cocaine. Other types of illicit drugs included heroin, hallucinogens, ketamine, and meth.

Marijuana is heavily used to reduce age-related pain, and it’s become a greater source of addiction due to its growing popularity. There’s also been greater leniency in city and state laws regarding the use of marijuana that has contributed to growing addictions.

Some elderly adults face lower levels of energy and stamina. Because of this, many are turning to cocaine. It’s a stimulant that’s highly addictive.

Prescription Drugs

To little surprise, there’s a growing problem with prescription addictions. This is one of the most common addictions in the elderly because they receive far more prescriptions than young adults.

Popular prescription drugs include forms of codeine, morphine, and oxycodone. More health facilities are requiring frequent urine testing to regulate the use of prescription drugs, but many people are illegally selling drugs for major profit.

If you suspect someone is abusing prescription medication, you might notice a growing collection of prescription bottles and pharmacy bags.

How to Reach Out

Reaching out to someone about a substance use disorder is never easy. It’s especially harder if it’s someone older and close to you, such as a parent or grandparent.

Talking with someone who’s addicted should always be approached from a place of empathy. It can be easy to enter the conversation with anger and frustration. Outward frustration will only make the other person defensive.

It’s also important to keep in mind that if this aging adult is someone like a parent to you, there will most likely be a big feeling of shame coming from them. They may feel like they’re failing as a parent or like they shouldn’t talk to you about their weaknesses.

As you have a conversation with them, don’t do all of the talking. Remain calm and collected as you listen to them. They might tell you why or how it started, and that’s useful information to know when seeking treatment.

If the person you suspect has an addiction denies the addiction or refuses to seek treatment, it’s important to establish boundaries with them. You have the power to tell them you don’t want to continue to be around them while they’re abusing drugs.

It’s important to adhere to the boundaries you set, but reach out for medical help whenever you feel it’s necessary.

What if I'm Struggling?

Struggling with addiction as an aging adult feels lonely and nearly impossible to defeat. Even if it’s as small as nicotine addiction, overcoming any addiction in your life is a big task that you don’t have to complete alone.

As cliche as it sounds, the first step to seeking help is realizing you’re struggling with a substance use disorder. It’s not an easy thing to acknowledge, and it does require a large amount of mental strength.

When it comes to seeking help, some people prefer to tell loved ones first or seek professional help immediately. This is a personal decision you have the power to make.

If it helps you to speak with your kids or grandkids first, sit down with them, and tell them you’re seeking treatment. Be prepared because some people may not react in a positive manner.

Are you completely isolated from friends and family? Seek a trusted member of your local church, or speak with a licensed mental health professional about your desire to recover from an addiction.

Whatever you choose to do, know there are plenty of opportunities for healing for you to explore! Healing is possible.

Treatment Options

There are plenty of treatment options to choose from when working towards recovery. It’s important to choose an option that best works for you and your needs.

If being in a supportive environment at all times is crucial for your recovery, look into inpatient rehab. Many rehabilitation centers offer full-time, inpatient care and give you all the tools you need to succeed.

Do you have a supportive environment at home? You could benefit from outpatient treatment and frequent visits with your therapist.

Don’t be afraid to mix in non-traditional healing elements if they help you. Many people dive deep into a yoga practice, develop new creative hobbies, or explore nature to relieve themselves of stress.

Inpatient Treatment

Like any option, inpatient treatment has its pros and cons. It’s highly effective, but it’s not for everyone.

If you want a fully immersive rehabilitation experience, it’s best to commit to inpatient treatment. You’ll live inside the facility and have support from the staff at all times.

This kind of treatment is best if you’re feeling emotionally unstable or suicidal. You’ll have access to mental health resources and emotional support. It’s also the best option for those fighting serious addictions.

Because you’ll be living in the facility, you won’t have to worry about many of the typical stressors of life, such as grocery shopping or mowing your lawn. You’ll be able to focus fully on each day as it comes.

The downside to inpatient treatment is the cost. It’s far more expensive to go through inpatient treatment, especially if you’re in the facility for several months at a time.

Outpatient Treatment

If you’re not battling a serious addiction or experiencing extreme emotional instability, outpatient treatment could be a great fit for you.

For this type of treatment, patients typically stay at home but attend the treatment program during the day. They’re able to maintain a more normal flow of life with a tad fewer stressors.

Even though you’ll only be dedicating a small number of hours to attending the rehabilitation center during the week, you’ll still have emotional support from staff, therapists, and other patients. Typically this type of treatment lasts longer because it’s more affordable.

How Do I Prepare for Treatment?

Preparing for treatment can be a daunting task. It’s especially difficult if going into rehab wasn’t completely your decision. There are a few things you can do if you have time to prepare.

Many elderly adults are retired, but if you have an employer, alert them you’ll be absent. If you have any community responsibilities, such as serving at a church or on a volunteer committee, tell a trusted friend you’ll be away for a bit.

If any grandchildren live with you, you’ll want to arrange a safe place for them to stay for a while if you’re enrolling into inpatient treatment. We know it can be scary to reach out, but you’ll feel much better in treatment knowing your family is safe while you seek help.

Are you enrolling in outpatient treatment? Find a reliable source of transportation. Ask a neighbor if they’re able to drive you, or look up the local bus schedule.

Lastly, you’ll need to clarify your specific facility’s guidelines. They’ll have a list of items you’re not allowed to have, and they most likely have rules on visitors.

Other Things to Try

Especially if you’re involved in outpatient treatment, it’s crucial to find healthy coping methods to fill your time. This is why many people turn to things like yoga or creative hobbies.

Yoga, stretching, and other mild forms of physical activity are great for aging adults. The exercises are gentle on the body, and they help relieve stress. Even doing something as simple as breathing exercises will calm your mind.

Is there a creative hobby you’ve always wanted to try but never have? Don’t waste any more time, and get to it. Try painting, cooking, sewing, drawing, or photography.

Holistic healing, through movement and things like reiki, has also been found to be beneficial for many elderly adults. It’s important to be gentle on the aging body as it goes through recovery.

How Can We All Help?

Even if you don’t know anyone personally dealing with a substance abuse problem, there are things you can do to help.

The biggest thing you can do to help is to educate yourself and others. Education is one of the greatest tools used to fight addiction, and it’s not talked about enough. Just because it isn’t talked about doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Understanding the common types of drugs and their side effects are important. If people start to understand how addiction affects people, we can start to do a better job of preventing it.

Does your community center have any information on senior citizen addiction? If not, set up a meeting with the staff to discuss the importance of this issue. They could be willing to set up a free class for the community or pay to print informational brochures to distribute around town.

These educational opportunities are especially important if your community has a high population of aging adults.

On top of education opportunities, volunteer at community centers that offer fun activities for aging adults. Investing in opportunities where aging adults can socialize and have fun reduces the rate of addiction.

Know Change is Possible

Even though it’s been said before in this reading, it’s important to know that change is possible. There is a brighter future ahead.

Admitting you or an elderly adult you love is struggling with addiction isn’t easy, but it’s the first step of recovery. There will be many tears and moments of defeat, but those are only temporary.

By surrounding yourself with the right team and high levels of emotional support, you can beat addiction. Just make sure that you’re in a safe environment, especially if you’re recovering from a serious addiction. Medical staff may provide support during cases of withdrawal.

If anyone continues to doubt your recovery or encourage your substance abuse, create strict boundaries with them. You may even find it necessary to cut them out of your life.

Lastly, make sure you’re supporting yourself. If you’re going through recovery, be your own biggest fan. Know you’re taking the right steps!

Confronting Reality: Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Substance abuse in the elderly is a scary part of reality. Many aging adults are struggling with addictions to illicit drugs, alcohol, and prescription medications. Fortunately, recovery is possible.

It’s important to understand these different types of drugs and how they can affect an individual. Educate yourself on the symptoms, and reach out to someone if you suspect they’re struggling.

If you or someone you know wants to seek treatment, there are several options. Someone can enroll in inpatient or outpatient treatment. Exploring other relaxing hobbies is highly encouraged.

References & Resources

  1. NIDA. 2020, July 9. Substance Use in Older Adults DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/substance-use-in-older-adults-drugfacts 
  2. Blanco-Suarez, E., Ph.D. (2018, October 18). Follow the Flock. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-chemistry/201810/follow-the-flock
  3. Kuerbis, A., Sacco, P., Blazer, D. G., & Moore, A. A. (2014, August). Substance abuse among older adults. Clinics in geriatric medicine. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC4146436/

  4. Elizabeth, H., BSc., MSc., MA, PhD. (2020, June 2). 9 Tips for Communicating With Someone Who Has an Addiction (J. C. Umhau MD, MPH, CPE, Ed.). Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-talk-to-an-addict-22012