Information on Substance Abuse Treatment for Seniors

Created On Tuesday, 12, January 2016
Modified On Friday, 17, September 2021


According to an article published by John Hopkins Medicine, the other states that by 2020, substance use disorders among adults over the age of 50 will increase to 5.7 million. The rise in problems connected to addiction is, in large part, connected to the baby boomer generation. Most baby boomers turned 65 in 2011 and grew up in the decades were experimenting with drugs was more common. Per the Annual Scientific Meeting talking about Substance Use and Misuse Among Older Adults, the most common addiction is alcohol, followed by nicotine, psychoactive prescription drugs, and other illegal drugs, like marijuana and cocaine.

Substance abuse treatment programs for older adults are usually age-specific programs providing more medical care and supervision. However, older adults do not always recognize the need for addiction, which requires most families to organize a family intervention. Also, it is not simple to recognize a substance abuse problem with adults over the age of 65. Substance abuse treatment providers and addiction professionals work with families to help them identify these problems and offer treatment solutions. Much of the problem begins with social isolation as seniors are often retired and no longer in the workforce. Most seniors live alone or are far from family members and personal social circles.

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Alcohol and drug abuse present unique problems for the older population, and it affects them physically and mentally. Unfortunately, as seniors age and physiological changes occur, it makes them more susceptible to and less tolerant of the effects of drugs or alcohol. As you age, your metabolism slows down, and medical complications interfere with the way alcohol and drugs are processed in the body. Also, addiction and substance abuse increase the risk of falling and breaking bones, suicide ideation, memory loss, delirium, and bad interactions with current medication. Substance use treatment centers that work with elderly people can help a family identify addiction. The side effects of substance abuse and addiction are similar to signs of aging.

Substance Abuse Among Older Adults

Many senior citizens struggling with the aging process and use drugs or alcohol to cope with mental or physical distress related to illness, chronic pain, and the death of a spouse or love done. Seniors experience family members moving away, a decrease in ability to engage in some activities, significant life changes. Unfortunately, addiction may start innocently with taking more medication than prescribed. Many of the medication seniors are taking are mind-altering and potentially addictive. Unfortunately, older adults are more likely to take more medication for longer and use more than one medication or supplement medication with other drugs.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly one million adults aged 65 and older live with a substance use disorder. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of substance use disorder admissions to treatment facilities differed slightly, but the proportion of admissions of older adults increased from 3.4% to 7% during that time. Per the same information, one study of 3,000 adults aged 57 to 85 showed common mixing of prescription medicines, non-prescription drugs, and dietary supplements. Approximately 80% were using at least one prescription medication daily, with nearly half using more than five medications or supplements. Roughly 1 in 25 people in this age group are at risk of significant drug interactions.

Many seniors also struggle with persistent pain; for example, 80% of cancer patients report pain, along with 77% of heart disease patients. Between four to nine percent of adults aged 65 and older use prescription opioid medication for pain relief. Between 1995 and 2010, opioids prescribed for older adults during regular office visits increased by a factor of nine. From 2013 to 2015, the population of adults aged 55 and older increased by about 6%. However, the proportion of people in that age group seeking treatment for opioid use disorder increased by nearly 54%. Also, during that time, the number of older adults using heroin more than double.

Approximately 9% of adults aged 50 to 64 reported past-year marijuana use in 2015-2016, compared to 7.1% in 2012-2013. The use of cannabis among adults aged 65 and older increased from 2.4% in 2006 to 2.9% in 2016. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug among older adults, and 65% of adults aged 65 and older reported high-risk drinking. More than a tenth of adults age 65 and older currently binge drink. Per the same data from NIDA, research published in 2020 shows an increase in alcohol consumption in recent years has been greater for people aged 50 and older when compared to younger age groups.

When is Substance Abuse Treatment for Seniors the Best Option?

Deciding when substance abuse treatment for seniors is the best option is not always easy. It is difficult to pick up on addiction among seniors because of underlying health problems or other issues connected to becoming older. However, once a family recognizes that substance abuse is an issue, the first step could involve organizing a family intervention. Most seniors struggling with addiction will not admit they have a problem and will ask to be left alone. Early intervention is successful and does save their life. It is essential for family members to be aware of the signs of addiction with their elderly family members.

Substance abuse among older adults is generally different from that of younger adults. As people age, their bodies metabolize alcohol slower and have a decreased tolerance to other drugs. Family members may notice they are misusing medication far more often because of their chronic medical conditions. Interactions between alcohol and medication should be of concern for the family, and this combination creates significant medical and psychological problems. Even a small amount of alcohol can have serious consequences. Alcohol use increases the likelihood of falls, confusion, depression, and premature mortality.

Substance abuse treatment for seniors becomes an option when alcohol misuse is noticeable. Some of the factors contributing to alcohol use among older adults include changing life roles, such as retirement, loss of family and friends, and mental or physical decline. Other factors are struggling with insomnia, family history of substance abuse, and psychological problems like depression and anxiety. Substance abuse treatment for older adults becomes an option when they begin to struggle with prescription and over the counter medication abuse.

According to an article published in Aging Well, older adults use prescription drugs nearly three times as frequently as the general population. Older adults are particularly at risk of unintentional medication misuse because of the use of multiple medications at once. Many older adults have several physicians prescribing different medications who may be unaware of the multiple medications the patients are taking. Also, illegal drug use becomes a problem requiring specific treatment. Per the same information, over the past decade, substance abuse among the older population has grown.

How to Drug Rehabilitation Programs for Seniors Operate?

Typically, there are age-specific substance abuse treatment programs and programs tailored to certain populations. Generally, it is better to be in a treatment program with peers and other individuals in similar life circumstances. Older adults abuse drugs and alcohol for different reasons, and the treatment options may vary depending on the level of care required. Rehabilitation options may include preventative, education, supportive services, medical detox, residential programs, or outpatient services.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as mentioned above, little is known about the best models of care. However, most research has shown that older patients benefit from a longer duration of treatment. An ideal treatment option includes the diagnosis and management of other chronic conditions. The treatment should help the patient re-build support networks, improve access to medical services, improve case management, and the delivery staff is trained in evidence-based strategies. Overall, treatment for older adults is the same process as with younger people. The rehabilitation process begins with an assessment, detox, counseling and therapy, and aftercare support.

Most older adults would require a medical detox to safely detox off prescription drugs, alcohol, or street drugs. Health professionals treating older adults need to be aware of all the medications a person is taking. Medical conditions and mental health concerns also need to be evaluated before withdrawal management. Residential and outpatient treatment services are used, and the severity of addiction determines what method of treatment is the best option. Residential drug rehabilitation provides the most comprehensive level of care because all services are provided onsite, and there is 24-hour medical support.

Additionally, recovery support and relapse prevention are essential. Support groups are often an essential part of substance abuse treatment. Older adults benefit from age-specific support groups, such as 12-step meetings. Peer support is accessible and easy for older adults to access when they finish substance abuse treatment.

Substance Abuse Among Seniors is a Growing Problem

The use of illicit drugs in older adults is much lower than among other adults, but it is increasing. Older adults are more likely to misuse medicines by forgetting to take their medication or taking it too often. Many older adults take substances to cope with big life changes, and most admissions to treatment centers in this age group are for alcohol. According to an article published in Clinical Geriatric Medicine, the initial wave of baby boomers turned 65 in 2011—approximately 30% of the total population in the United States. Between 2010 and 2030, the number of older adults in the nation will increase from 40.3 million to 72.1 million.

Despite increasing rates of illicit and prescription drug abuse among older adults, alcohol remains the most commonly abused substance. At-risk drinking is more prevalent among older adults than alcohol use disorders and is also responsible for a larger share of harm to the health and well-being of older adults. Illicit drug use among older adults is increasing and is more prevalent among American older adults than among older adults in almost any other country. For example, among adults aged 50 and older, approximately 4.6 million reported past-year marijuana use, and less than one million reported cocaine, inhalants, hallucinogens, methamphetamines, and heroin in the past year.

Getting older adults into treatment is not easy because older adults who do not have a history of lifelong substance abuse are usually reluctant to be associated with life-long drug users. Generally, health education programs targeting older adults have been effective in providing them with knowledge about substance use and addiction. Psychosocial treatment, including interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and supportive non-confrontational approaches, are also effective. Peer self-help approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous are often comprised exclusively of older adults.

Common Terms with Substance Use Treatment for Seniors

Term Definition
Alcoholism is the inability to control drinking due to both physical and emotional dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism is a common problem among older adults, and the symptoms are easily missed by family and friends.
OTC Medication medication sold without a prescription such as a cough and cold medicine. OTC medication abuse is common, and older adults often have problems with dangerous drug interactions involving over the counter drugs and prescription drugs.
Opioids are medications that act on opioid receptors in both the spinal cord and brain, reducing the intensity of pain signal perception. Older adults are routinely prescribed opioids to manage different forms of pain.
Central Nervous System Depressants these are a category of drugs that include tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics that slow down brain activity. These drugs are responsible for countless addiction among older adults.
Central Nervous System Stimulants These are drugs that increase alertness, attention, and energy as well as elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. The combination of stimulants and alcohol increases the chance of overdose.
Screening and Assessment the process involves asking questions carefully designed to determine if there is an addiction. The process is essential for older adults because of other health conditions that cause similar symptoms to addiction.
Dementia is a group of conditions characterized by impairment of at least two brain functions, such as memory loss and judgment.
Psychoactive Medications these are a substance that acts primarily on the central nervous system and affects brain function resulting in mood, cognition, behavior, and consciousness and block perception of pain.
Excessive Alcohol Use includes binge drinking and heavy drinking, which is 15 or more drinks per week. Excessive drinking is a common problem among older adults, often leading to alcoholism.
Behavioral Therapy is an umbrella term for types of therapy that treat addiction and is the most common and effective approach used to help seniors struggling with addiction.


Marcel Gemme, DATS - Author

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Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with addiction for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States and Canada, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate and help many more people in both those countries. This was 15 years ago. Since then, Marcel has built two of the largest websites in the U.S. and Canada which reach and help millions of people each year. He is an author and a leader in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. His main focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation. To this day, he still strives to be at the forefront of technology in order to help more and more people. He is a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist graduate with Honours of Stratford Career Institute. Marcel has also received a certificate from Harvard for completing a course entitled The Opioid Crisis in America and a certificate from The University of Adelaide for completing a course entitled AddictionX: Managing Addiction: A Framework for Succesful Treatment.

Michael Leach, CCMA - Medically Reviewed on September 17, 2021

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Michael Leach is a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, who has over 5 years of experience working in the field of addiction. He spent his career working under the board-certified Addictionologist Dr. Rohit Adi. His experience includes working with families during their loved one’s stay in treatment, helping those with substance abuse issues find treatment, and teaching life skills to patients in a recovery atmosphere. Though he has worked in many different areas of rehabilitation, the majority of his time was spent working one on one with patients who were actively withdrawing from drugs. Withdrawal and the fear of going through it is one biggest reason why an addict continues to use and can be the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process. His experience in the withdrawal atmosphere has taught him that regardless of what approach a person takes to get off drugs, there are always mental and emotional obstacles that need to be overcome. He believes having someone there to help a person through these obstacles can make all the difference during the withdrawal process.