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Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Why are senior citizens subject to substance abuse? Here are just a couple of possible reasons:

  • Deteriorating mental stability
  • Likelihood of injury
  • Increased need for medication
  • Boredom
  • Loss


Substance abuse and misuse can sometimes be overlooked among older adults. A diagnosis may be difficult because symptoms of substance abuse in older individuals sometimes mimic symptoms of other medical and behavioral disorders common among the elderly.

Not everyone intentionally abuses drugs. It’s no different with senior citizens, but when they do, prescription medications and alcohol are often the primary culprits. Oftentimes people become addicted to medicine that was originally prescribed to treat an ailment. Some of the most commonly abused medications by senior citizens include: 


  • Opiates- Pain Medication
  • Morphine (Kadian, Avinza) 
  • Codeine (Tylenol #2, 3, 4)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet) 
  • Hydrocodone (Lortab, Lorcet, Vicodin) 
  • Propoxyphene (Darvon) 
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic) Hydromorphone (Dilaudid) 
  • CNS depressants (Benzodiazepines)
  • Diazepam (Valium) 
  • Chlordiazepoxide HCI (Librium)
  • Alprazolam (Xanax) 
  • Triazolam (Halcion) 
  • Estazolam (ProSom)


The Stigma of Addiction in Senior Citizens
It can be sometimes difficult to determine whether someone has an addiction. This can be especially true in this case, and studies show that senior citizens are less likely to ask for help due to shame or not wanting to burden someone else.


Signs of Substance Abuse in The Elderly
When determining if an elderly individual has a substance abuse problem, one of the biggest challenges is that a lot of the naturally occurring symptoms that come with age, can mirror those of drug addiction and abuse. A few of those symptoms can include:


  • Memory loss
  • Disorientation
  • Lack of balance
  • Shaky hands
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Chronic boredom


Physical Factors

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with substance abuse, but with the older population, there can be some unique complications. Drug misuse and abuse in the elderly is of special concern because it can cause cognitive and physical impairment— putting this population at greater risk for falls, motor vehicle accidents, and making them generally less able to care for their daily needs.


Cognitive Factors

As we get older, some of our minds just start to go—thinking becomes less clear, memory and sharpness go with it. Older patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term and multiple prescriptions, and some experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper use of medications.


Emotional Factors

At the senior age, a lot of people become lonely after losing friends and spouses. Boredom, loneliness, and depression are some of the largest contributors to drug abuse. Drugs can make a person feel numb, or even indifferent. Older adults who ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol or prescription drugs are more likely to characterize themselves as lonely and to report lower life satisfaction. 



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