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Addiction Recovery Concerns for Seniors

by Christine H.




Most people imagine that addiction is only faced by teens and young adults. However, we’re seeing a growing, and troubling trend: people over 50 are experiencing more and more addiction to drugs and alcohol. Some organizations are tagging this “a silent epidemic.” It’s important for us to understand more about it, and to know how to help our loved ones confront this challenge, whatever their age.

The Growing Epidemic

Substance abuse is one of the fastest-growing concerns for adults over 60. Seniors who struggle with addiction can be a widely varied group of individuals. Some might have a long history of struggling with addiction. Others have a sort of “late-onset” addiction, wherein certain conditions and changes in their lives as they age have led to exposure and addiction to illicit substances.

There are many lifestyle changes that occur later in life which can cause people to seek relief in mind-altering chemicals. Studies have found that alcohol abuse rates go up after retirement. Stresses like moving, losing loved ones, and experiencing a major change in one’s work life can all cause a person to self-medicate. Seniors also might find themselves abusing prescription medications in order to adapt to health changes, from pain relief after a surgery to difficulty sleeping.

Because addiction among seniors isn’t recognized as the threat it is, it often goes undiagnosed, and individuals aren’t able to find the help that they need.

Signs to Be Aware Of

Identifying substance abuse in seniors might be difficult because it can mimic other problems, such as dementia, or depression, which are common among seniors. Additionally, if substance abuse gets worse after a life change, it can seem as though the changes in behavior are just a result of that life transition. Last of all, it’s usually easier for us to ignore addiction in seniors than addiction in young adults. It can be more difficult for a child to bring it up to a parent than it is for a parent to confront a child about. Here are some common signs that it’s important to note:

Memory loss
Losing touch with old friends
Irritability, or depression
Skipping self-care, such as bathing
Loss of appetite
Wanting to be alone more and more


Most of all, it’s important to keep a close eye on medication use in the house, and have a doctor that is scrupulous in prescribing.

Special Health Concerns of the Elderly

Some people are tempted to disregard signs of substance abuse in the elderly because recovery seems too hard. As seniors, their lives might be more limited anyway. It doesn’t seem to do as much damage if they’re unable to work or build new, healthy relationships. Of course, quality of life is still a vital component for the elderly, whatever their age. However, there’s another reason that addiction should be taken very seriously: seniors are more susceptible to the health risks of substance abuse. Any kind of drug wreaks havoc with the body, and interacts with other medications to create life-threatening situations. This is especially true for seniors.

There is also an increased risk of accident as a result of disorientation and falling in the elderly. Things that seem inconsequential for young, healthy bodies can quickly become life-threatening for seniors.

How Can You Help?

If you suspect a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, talk about it with their physician. Take inventory of their medication and make sure that there’s not more than one prescribing doctor in the mix. A health professional can help you identify the danger and modify treatment accordingly. Sometimes you will find that there are alternative medications that don’t hold the same risk of addiction. Moreover, if you (or your loved one) decide to cut back on the substance being abused, there can be health complications in the form of withdrawal, and that will need to be closely monitored for their health and safety.

The next thing to do is to encourage your loved one to seek treatment. Treatment facilities that specialize in care of older adults are available. It’s also possible that if you approach the idea from the perspective of mental health treatment, it will be more palatable to your loved one. After all, it’s important to understand what the underlying psychology is behind substance abuse. It could be that your loved one needs to talk with someone about their feelings of depression, grief, or isolation.

Outpatient options are also available, which will permit them to keep tabs on the problem without interrupting their life too much. Fortunately, organized recovery programs such as counseling and help groups like AA are often very successful among the elderly, even more so than amongst young adults. Often, you can even find treatment facilities covered by Medicare.

Last of all, it’s important for you, as their friend and/or family, to stay closely connected to them. Even if they are resistant to treatment, they need to understand that they are loved and cared for. Assist them with any help they might need, whether that’s medical treatment, or even moving. They need to know that their well-being is important to you.

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- Matthew 7:7-8






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