Addiction Treatment for Seniors: Helping an Elderly Loved One Overcome Drug or Alcohol Abuse

Finding Addiction Treatment for Seniors
Dominic Nicosia

Written By

Dominic Nicosia
Dr. Po-Chang Hsu -

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Last Medically Reviewed on January 23, 2024

It can be hard to think that your elderly loved one may need addiction treatment. After all, in many cases, they raised you your entire life, provided for you, and, while they may not be perfect, have proven to be examples of strength, stability, and comfort. Over the past few decades, however, more and more clinical and cultural factors have sparked a need for better and more intuitive addiction treatment for seniors. While we often think of alcohol and drug abuse as a “young person’s game” that starts during teenage years or young adulthood, many unique circumstances have led to increased addiction among senior citizens.

The fact remains, however, that these are relatively uncharted waters, so if your parent, grandparent, or elderly loved one is struggling with addiction, it can be hard to even recognize the issue, much less know how to approach them about getting help. Here are some insights that can help guide your course of action and decision-making.

By the Numbers: The Growing Need for Addiction Treatment for Seniors

Data from Columbia University, Duke, and UCLA indicates that rates of illicit drug use among older adults are higher in the United States than practically any other country in the world, but also that alcohol continues to top the list of the most common cause of substance abuse among seniors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that nearly a million adults over the age of 65 live with substance use disorder and that, while the overall number of treatment admissions for Americans remained steady from 2000 to 2012, the number of admissions rates among seniors more than doubled in that same time period.

  • One 2017 study points to an 11.2 percent increase in alcohol use in older adults between 2002 and 2013.
  • Data published by the National Institutes of Health indicates a 53.5 percent increase in opioid abuse treatment for older adults between 2013-2015.
  • Data from AARP points to significant increases in past-month prescription drug abuse among seniors over the past few years, including painkillers and benzos.

These increases are not occurring in a vacuum. There are very unique interconnected factors that are driving this alarming spike.

Why Are Senior Citizens Getting Addicted to Drugs More Often?

Some of the main factors driving the need for senior addiction treatment include:

Cultural Identity

Let’s face it: boomers are unlike any other generation before or after them. They’re comprised of an amalgam of identities, ranging from those more akin to the conservatism of the “Greatest Generation” that came before them to the protestors the world saw occupying universities and government buildings in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s in this generation that recreational drug use started to become more and more common, and many of these behaviors and attitudes are being carried over into later years.

Age-Related Physiological Issues

Unfortunately, as the body gets older, it becomes increasingly difficult to properly metabolize prescription and illicit substances without developing tolerance and feeling more rapid and severe withdrawal symptoms. Older adults are often more susceptible to the effects of drugs because as the body ages, it often cannot absorb and break down drugs and alcohol as easily as it once did. There’s also evidence to suggest that individuals who engage in cocaine abuse in their youth experience brain aging and breakdown more quickly than others.

Unintentional Misuse of Drugs

Seniors are far more likely to engage in prescription drug misuse than illicit drug abuse. Again, baby boomers are uniquely determined to maintain their vitality and independence, and they are doing so more and more through a “better living through chemistry” approach. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that seniors are more likely to take multiple prescription medications. More than 53 percent of adults over 65 report taking four or more prescription drugs. Sometimes, however, they may not even realize they’re misusing their medications. Older adults are more likely to unintentionally misuse medicines by forgetting to take their medicine, taking it too often, or taking the wrong amount.

Age-Related Mental Health Issues

Aging, by itself, can bring about its own trauma punctuated by big life changes, like retirement, death of loved ones and friends, declining income, decreasing mobility and independence, loneliness, and more. Many boomers who were uniquely celebratory of their youth and vitality in their younger years have an especially hard time getting old and use alcohol and drugs to cope.

Related to the last factor is the unmatched sense of independence and autonomy that boomers have, which can often lead to a sense of denial that a problem even exists. They don’t want to think of themselves as someone who has “lost control” over their ability to stop using alcohol and prescriptions. While it’s not something that younger or middle-aged adults may have had to think about as much, finding senior addiction treatment for your aging loved one may be more of a priority than you think.

Where Is the Need for Senior Addiction Treatment Most Urgent?

Although the need for senior addiction treatment is prevalent in all areas of the country, it has proven to be especially urgent in Florida, where seniors make up a particularly large portion of the state’s demographic and where the opioid crisis has hit communities especially hard. Recovery Unplugged offers comprehensive addiction treatment for seniors at our facilities in Fort Lauderdale and Lake Worth to help elderly clients overcome alcohol and drug use disorders.

How Can I Tell If My Elderly Loved One Needs Treatment for Addiction?

Start by checking in with them more. Oftentimes, these issues fall through the cracks because you aren’t looking for them or you aren’t spending enough time with your aging loved one to notice any physical or behavioral changes until it’s too late. You should also:

  • Get a thorough picture of their medical situation, including what drugs they’re prescribed and how much.
  • Research medication side effects and potential for tolerance.
  • Monitor their drinking and acquaint yourself with acceptable levels of alcohol consumption for seniors.
  • Go with them to doctor’s appointments and work with their doctors to identify changes in health or personality.
  • Be part of their active lifestyle and encourage them to go out more and be social. Help them by giving them rides and picking them up from their homes, if necessary.
  • Keep a schedule of their meds and check in with them about how much they took that day and when so you can ensure they’re using them according to their doctor’s orders.
  • Look for the signs. If you identify things like slurred speech, the smell of alcohol on their breath, changes in their appearance of general disposition, sudden cognitive or memory issues, or anything else that seems out of the ordinary, this might be a cause for concern.

It’s important to remember that the signs of addiction in seniors can be very similar to normal parts of the aging process, so you will need to be extra vigilant in distinguishing between the two. Be prepared for your elderly loved one to get obstinate when confronted about their drinking or drug use; they genuinely may not believe they have a problem. Declining cognitive ability and memory issues can make self-awareness of addiction even more complicated for seniors.

What Does Effective Addiction Treatment for Seniors Look Like?

Effective senior addiction treatment programs should address the unique age-related factors that lead to and sustain substance use disorder. Your elderly loved one will need compassionate and effective medical treatment for their withdrawal symptoms and the complex factors that can affect physical health and long-term healing. Seniors in addiction treatment may also need help with long-term medical issues associated with recovery and aging.

They will also need help with the behavioral and psychological issues that have led to their alcohol or drug use, which are often very specific to the aging process (fear of mortality, loss of independence, friends, depression, anxiety, etc.). It’s important that psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors at senior addiction treatment facilities understand how these unique factors drive substance use disorder and addiction.

Talking to Your Elderly Loved One About their Substance Use

Oftentimes, the hardest part about getting your addicted elderly loved one the help they need is approaching them about their problem in the first place. There are a lot of relationship dynamics at play during these interactions, and it’s normal to feel nervous about “reversing roles” to become the caretaker. When we’re suddenly forced to play parent to our own parents, it can be hard to know what to do or how to act. The reality is that your elderly loved one will not like or appreciate being told what to do, especially coming from a generation so closely guarded of their own independence. Here are some tips for talking to your elderly loved one about their substance use:

  • Acknowledge Reality – You may never stop feeling like a kid regarding your parents and grandparents. Whether you like it or not, roles have changed, and it’s now up to you to be the “adult” in the room. The sooner you recognize that you are empowered to help, the sooner you can start helping for real. This will help you be more confident interacting with your elderly loved one.
  • Understand the Roots of the Problem – It’s important for you to understand how and why your elderly loved one’s substance abuse began. Did they start abusing painkillers after surgery? Are they drinking to cope with depression, anxiety, or loneliness? Are they having trouble sleeping and have fallen victim to sleeping pills? Understanding the context of their addiction will help you frame the dialogue, so it looks like you’re their ally rather than judging them.
  • Be Compassionate – Let them know how important and strong they are, and that you would never do anything to steer them in the wrong direction. Show respect, compassion, and empathy, and let them know you’ll do whatever you can to help.

From a logistical standpoint, you should also help them look for treatment, as they will almost certainly not be inclined or able to look for it themselves. Find a treatment provider that can work with your insurance to get your loved one the right level of care, whether they need inpatient or outpatient treatment. It’s also important to consider any relevant medical issues they have that can dictate the level of care they are able to receive. The reality is they may not be able to enter an inpatient program if they need in-depth and ongoing care for a serious medical issue.

Addiction Treatment for Seniors at Recovery Unplugged

Recovery Unplugged is acutely aware of the pervasive and escalating addiction crisis facing the American senior citizen population and offers compassionate, effective, and age-appropriate care for your parent, grandparent, or elderly loved one. Our doctors and nurses provide safe and discreet detox to help your loved one overcome the worst of their withdrawal symptoms, and our psychiatrists and therapists will help them to safely and confidently confront the specific age-related issues that trigger substance use. Recovery Unplugged offers multiple locations nationwide and is in-network with 70 percent of all major insurance providers. We also do intervention services for this complex and difficult task.

You have more power than you think to help your elderly loved one find the care they need for addiction treatment. Recovery Unplugged is ready to partner with you to get your parent or grandparent back from substance use disorder. Contact our staff today to start the healing process.

We take our music-focused treatment for addiction very seriously, so we are going to hold our content to the same precision standards. Recovery Unplugged’s editorial process involves our editing safeguard and our ideals. Read our Editorial Process.

Dominic Nicosia

Dominic, a seasoned content writer at Recovery Unplugged, brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the realm of healthcare writing, particularly in the addiction and recovery field.

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