Addiction in the Elderly

It’s widely believed that substance abuse and addiction in the elderly is a hidden epidemic. Even if they have no history, it should be taken seriously because substance abuse, especially in the elderly, can exacerbate health problems. In 2016, 19.3% of older adults in the country filled at least one opioid prescription, and 7.1% had four or more opioid prescriptions that year.

Because of the changes that come with aging, substance abuse can disproportionately negatively affect older adults. Chronic illnesses or pain are often treated with potentially addictive medications. The elderly metabolize medications more slowly, making them more sensitive with higher impairments that decrease memory, balance and may cause serious falls.

Elderly substance abuse is underrecognized in older adults due to:

  • Social Isolation- Living alone, away from family, no one sees substance issues growing
  • Ageism- Belief that older adults have earned certain indulgences.
  • Concerns About Quality of Life- Living with pain

Oxycodone (Percocet and OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and fentanyl—are commonly prescribed for severe or chronic pain.  Benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), midazolam (Versed) function as relaxers. Both are highly addictive. Some signs of addiction include:

  • Hiding prescriptions
  • Running out of medications quickly
  • Showing withdrawal symptoms (e.g., nausea, vomiting)
  • Signs of cognitive impairment and decreased balance/falls
  • Using multiple pharmacies to fill prescriptions

Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step to helping them overcome it and develop a plan. Open up a discussion about what pain management alternatives they’ve tried, help them talk with their doctor, and see if there’s a way you can work together to manage the situation.