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Substance Abuse Among the Elderly

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Substance Abuse Among the Elderly

The Invisible Epidemic

Substance abuse among the elderly is not just a reality but also a growing problem. Seniors are especially vulnerable because of the unique challenges they face from the natural aging process. Sadly enough, this population’s health needs continue to be ignored, which places them at a higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse.
There is a growing elderly population in Western countries. Therefore, if the substance abuse issue within the elderly population is not addressed, this is likely to become a much bigger problem in the near future. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports showing that substance abuse disorders among people over 50 would hit 5.7 million in 2020, which presents double the numbers from 2006.

What are the Substances Most Likely to be Abused?

Older adults are involved in all types of substance abuse, but they are most likely to abuse:

  • Alcohol, an available and legal substance that can momentarily help alleviate stress, loneliness, and fear.
  • Prescription drugs. Prescription drug abuse has affected every part of our society, including the elderly. Mainly for taking painkillers to manage pain related to degenerative conditions.
  • Marijuana use is also becoming an increasingly popular form of substance abuse among the elderly. First, because now the drug is legal and easier to acquire; secondly, because it is a familiar drug due to its prevalence during the 60s and 70s.

Common Causes for Elderly Substance Abuse

There are many explanations why older adults may turn to alcohol or drugs, including:

  • Loneliness
  • Grief and loss
  • Boredom
  • Changes in living situation
  • Declining Health
  • Chronic pain
  • Fear
  • Loss of cognitive function
  • Lack of meaningful activities
  • Family problems
  • Financial insecurities or difficulties

The Risks of Substance Abuse among the Elderly

Substance Abuse in Elderly
Anyone who abuses alcohol or drugs is risking their physical and mental health. Those who are over 60 years old face specific and more dangerous consequences, including:

  • Older people are far more likely to experience physical and psychological harm due to alcohol or drug abuse. Their bodies are less able to protect themselves against such overindulgence, meaning that their health will likely decline quickly.
  • Because the elderly have fewer responsibilities and commitments, they can engage in substance use throughout the day without many people noticing, which leads to increased usage.
  • Balance is also a major issue. Older folks are much more likely to fall due to intoxication, leading to serious injury.
  • Older people have a reduction in liver enzymes, which causes a change in the fat-to-water body ratio. In other words, there is less water to dilute the alcohol. When alcohol is not adequately diluted, it leads to a much higher level of intoxication.
  • Elderly people may believe they do not have many years left ahead, which justifies continued abuse because it is too late to change.
  • Another significant threat to older people is that they might forget to take their medications or take a double dosage because they could not remember taking the first dose. This means they are also at greater risk of mixing them with other highly dangerous substances, like alcohol.


Often senior alcohol and drug abuse go undetected. The main reasons are that they often live alone, or their abuse symptoms are misdiagnosed as the effects of aging. For that reason, doctors should provide older patients with a comprehensive evaluation, including a thorough physical examination along with laboratory analysis and psychiatric, neurological, and social assessment.
In case they suspect substance abuse, it is crucial to have access to adequate medically assisted resources that could safely and effectively help patients.

How Do Substance Use Disorders Affect Older Adults?

The natural aging process often leads to social and physical changes that may raise stress and vulnerability to substance abuse. Seniors are more likely to suffer from mood dysfunctions, lung and heart problems, and memory issues. Substances such as painkillers and alcohol can significantly exacerbate these health issues, causing a quick decline in their health. Additionally, substance abuse often leads to impaired judgment, coordination, and reactionary response, resulting in accidents, such as falls, injuries, and motor vehicle accidents.
Diagnosing substance abuse in older people is a challenge because many signs could also be part of aging. Also, older people are particularly fearful of admitting having issues with substance abuse. They feel a great deal of shame and embarrassment. The lack of understanding and the pressure of social stigma makes them believe that their issues will be viewed and treated particularly harshly.

Symptoms and Signs of Elderly Substance Abuse

Although diagnosing substance abuse among the elderly can be challenging, it is necessary to protect their well-being.  Roughly a third of adults who have been suffering from substance use disorder also suffer from some depression. Because alcohol and drugs have such powerful numbing effects which mimic symptoms of depression, a proper diagnose while the person is actively using can be quite tricky. Depression symptoms vary depending on the individual experiencing the disorder.

Typical substance abuse symptoms to watch for include:

  • Secretive behavior
  • Blackouts or memory loss
  • Recurrent falls and unexplained bruises
  • Irritability and defensive attitude when questioned about alcohol or drug use
  • A loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Loss of appetite
  • Erratic mood changes
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Neglect of personal grooming and hygiene
  • Unexpected and sudden irrational behavior
  • Negativity and depression
  • Signs of withdrawal symptoms such as stomach upset and shakes

Substance Abuse Medical Treatment for Older Adults in Private Centers

Understanding the fundamental underlying concerns of older people suffering from substance use disorders is vital for a safe and successful treatment approach.
At Waismann Method® and Domus Retreat, we listen very carefully. Older adults often come to treatment feeling as if they have lost meaning and purpose at this stage in their lives. At Domus, one on one emotional support services has been created specifically to deal with these concerns.
The medical and clinical professionals working with the patients must consider whether substance use might be contributing to age-related concerns. For example, if the person has unexplained bruises, reduced mental capacity, or other primary functional difficulties. In those cases, the first step is to identify the problem and help the person identify and reach out for the specific needed support. Once substance abuse is successfully treated, and other conditions are determined, several treatment options are available to help older adults experience the best possible quality of life.


Sadly, older adults are often unaware of the risk they are taking by misusing certain substances. They may not realize that with age, being under the influence can significantly increase health risks. There is also a tremendous lack of knowledge within the medical community about available treatment options for alcohol and prescription drugs that are private, respectful, and medically adequate for older adults.

Important things to remember when seeking the best addiction treatment for older adults include:

  • Specialized medical doctors can help older people overcome substance abuse.
  • When withdrawal occurs in a hospital, adverse effects and health risks are greatly reduced. Patients feel much more safe and comfortable, having a medical team manage their symptoms and vitals.
  •  Having therapists can be a great help for those who are battling addiction. They can help the individual examine the causes of the problem and guide them towards finding tools to ease the difficulties that led to substance use.
  • Inpatient treatment does not equate to rehab centers. There are multiple confidential, private, and individualized options for seniors suffering from substance abuse.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with substance use disorder, give us a call. Let us understand your situation and provide you with available solutions. Remember, there is nothing to be ashamed of, and as scary as reaching out for help might seem, you are just gathering information right now. The more information you have, the more prepared you will be in choosing the right treatment program.

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