What You Should Know About Seniors and Drug Addiction

Guest blogger David Tews, Ed.D., Clinical Director at Soft Landing Recovery, weighs in on the recent uptick in senior drug abuse. The last time we spoke to Dr. Tews, we discussed senior binge drinking. Here, he talks about the alarming increase in drug addiction in the elderly.

Drug abuse among seniors is on the rise. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the percentage of older adults (50-59) who reported having abused illicit and prescription drugs had more than doubled, from 2.7 percent to 6.2 percent in 2011. This is the number reported, so the actual percentage is probably much higher.

Why the rise in older adult substance abuse? We have seen more patients in this category during the past year, and there are several factors influencing the increase. Many patients experience painful events during this time in their lives, both physical and emotional. Some of the patients we see have become addicted to prescription painkillers, especially narcotics such as Vicodin and Darvocet. After time, they develop a tolerance to the drugs (needing to take more for the desired effect), and when they try to cut down or stop, they experience very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. It suddenly occurs to them that they are addicted to painkillers.

Many elderly patients who have used prescription medication for anxiety have found themselves in a similar dilemma, needing to take more medicine for the desired effect to the point that they are taking the maximum dose without significantly reducing their symptoms. Many patients use alcohol to relieve stress and anxiety (including social anxiety), and the increased use of this drug may increase as they retire, lose loved ones, or begin socializing more in circles which include drinking as part of the social setting.

Illicit and prescription drugs have long been used to help people cope with stress, loss, grief, and anxiety. The loss of a loved one is a serious factor as the loved one may have been the patient's only source of emotional support. An older person may be less likely to seek treatment because of pride or simply not wanting to be labeled an "addict."

Many older adults have other, very legitimate, physical and mental health issues for which they are taking medication. Mixing alcohol and prescription medication could have extremely serious consequences including death. Attempting withdrawal on one's own could also have dire consequences including death. When a person feels the use of a drug, prescription or otherwise, is out of control (tolerance and withdrawal), they need to ask for help.

As the population continues to age, and the baby-boomers continue to retire, it is safe to say the number of people with substance abuse problems will continue to increase. If you or someone you know may have a problem, seek help immediately.


What do you think? Have you or a loved one ever experienced an unexpected addiction? How did you (or they) cope? At what point does one decide that eliminating real, physical pain trumps the risk of addiction?


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