The Special Addiction Problems of the Aging and Elderly

elderly woman taking prescription drugs

For a decade or more, businesses have been modifying their products and services to suit the needs of the growing number of Baby Boomers. And with good reason. At this time, there are about 41 million adults 65 and older. But in 15 years, that number is expected to increase to 73 million. When the elderly are addicted to either drugs or alcohol, there are often special considerations that must be taken into account for rehab to succeed.

Addiction among the elderly is increasing but not just because we have greater numbers in that age group. The rate of illicit drug use is also increasing. In 2002, only about 2.7% of people in their 50s used illicit drugs. By 2011, that number had more than doubled to 6.3%. Among men aged 50 – 59, the rate of illicit drug use reached 8%.

Today’s elderly were in the first large wave of Americans trying illicit drugs in the 1960s and may return to this practice if their later lives prove too stressful or lonely. The loss of a spouse or close friends may trigger drug abuse even if the person has been sober for decades. A person who is forced to give up their home and move into assisted living may use more pills than prescribed to cope with the stress.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the most common illicit drug to be used by those aged 50 – 59 was marijuana. But among those 60 and older, prescription drug misuse was as common as marijuana use.

Unintentional Addiction to Prescription Drugs

Elderly individuals may wind up addicted to drugs even if they never misuse any medications they are given. The elderly are more likely to be given painkillers as they suffer chronic ailments or pain or undergo surgery. They may be given benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax if they show anxiety. They may lack representatives who understand their situations if their family members live a distance away. These factors mean that the elderly, on average, take more prescription medications than other age groups and if they run into problems with them, these problems may not be detected.

Some older people will become dependent on these drugs meaning they can’t just quit taking them without withdrawal symptoms showing up. Others will misuse them for their mental effects and become addicted in the full sense of the word. When it comes time for rehab, their needs may be a little different. Drugs are often broken down more slowly by older bodies to they may be less capable of clearing drugs out of their systems during withdrawal.

Since drug use peaks in the 20s, many people going to rehab are in their 20s or 30s. A person in their 60s or even older may not enjoy the differences between them and these younger people. Their values and standards may be different. At this time, the addiction rehab field is seeking ways to modify their programs and services to accommodate the needs of this growing group.

“Mental confusion can, of course, accompany physical problems related to aging but it is also a sign of drug abuse in the elderly…”

Detecting Addiction in Older Individuals

Even when family members are on hand, it can be difficult to determine when changes are due to aging and when they are due to the misuse of pills or abuse of illicit drugs. As they age, many people give up activities they no longer have the energy for but this can also be a sign of drug problems. There may be changes in sleep patterns and a person may neglect their hygiene. Some people become irritable, depressed or anxious. Mental confusion can, of course, accompany physical problems related to aging but it is also a sign of drug abuse in the elderly. Changes in eating – either eating more or neglecting to eat – should be noted. And of course, falls may be more common in an older person misusing prescription drugs or using illicit drugs.

It may be necessary for family members to monitor the number of pills on hand and ensure that not too many are taken. And like any other situation where drugs may be used, it might be necessary to just ask the person about drugs or alcohol being consumed.

Around the world, the Narconon program has been able to help people of all ages recover from addiction to illicit drugs, prescription drugs or alcohol. It is never too late to get sober and improve the quality of one’s life. No matter what age, if someone you care about needs help to recover from addiction, call us to learn more.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.