Addiction and Aging

nurse holding hands with elderly woman

Addiction and Aging

When we think of addiction, many times seniors are not the first age group that comes to mind. According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, as many as 17% of adults age 60 and over abuse prescription drugs. And 65% of adults 65 and over show at-risk signs of alcohol abuse. Addiction may start innocently as elderly individuals utilize substances to cope with mental or physical challenges. These challenges may be related to illness, chronic pain, the death of a spouse or loved one, families moving away, a decrease in ability to engage in some activities, major life changes, increasing psychiatric issues, or social isolation.



of adults 65 and older report behaviors for high-risk alcohol intake


of adults 55 and older seek prescribed opioids for daily pain management


of prescription drugs sold in the United States are used by the elderly


of patients over 50 expressed suicidal ideation after issuing prescribed opioids compared to the 2% who did not use them


of adults age 60 and older abuse prescription drugs


More than one in ten seniors report binge drinking (having more than 5 drinks in one hour)

Alcohol and its Risks

Looking for signs of different types of alcohol dependence in your senior is an important step to recovery. Alcoholism does not stop at a certain age, however the diagnosis of an alcohol addiction is not often considered as a first response to signs a senior might be showing. It is much more common for a younger person to be recognized for having an addiction than the elderly. Aging can lower the body’s tolerance for alcohol, which puts older adults at higher risks for falls, vehicle accidents, and other unintentional injuries that may result from drinking.

Why Seniors Are More At Risk:

  • Less muscle to absorb alcohol: As we age our muscle is replaced by fat. Without this extra layer the alcohol we consume makes its way to our bloodstream much quicker, making its effects more dramatic.
  • The body takes longer to digest alcohol: Our bodies and vital organs are losing steam, therefore our alcohol consumption can take longer to digest. This can also prevent important medications from working properly.
  • Less water in the body: As we get older, the amount of alcohol in our body decreases by 15%. With alcohol contributing to dehydration, this can create a dangerous combination.

Symptoms to Look For:

  • Short term memory loss
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Excusing why they are drinking
  • Signs of depression
man inside empty bottle of alcohol

Prescribed Painkillers and Their Risks

Painkiller use and abuse are growing among senior populations and often result in a “balancing act” between maintaining a patient’s quality of life while minimizing the risk of addiction. Age related changes may lead to boredom, depression, fear of aging, health concerns, and chronic pain. Seniors may also experience loneliness, social isolation, and anxiety from life events such as loss of a spouse. Medications to improve quality of life can be the source of adverse effects and prescription drug misuse. By showing your loved one as much support as possible you can create a safe space for them to open up about their emotional or physical worries. Assure them that together you can work this out with trusted professionals and their safety is your top priority.

sad person with pills dumped out

Symptoms to Look For:

  • Lethargy
  • Declining interest in hobbies or activities
  • Decreased balance and recent falls
  • Depressed or irritable
  • Confusion
  • Foggy thinking
  • Forgetfulness
  • Physical weakness
  • Medication tolerance over time
While non-opioid pain medications may interact negatively with other prescription drugs to treat chronic pain, it is important to understand the risks and benefits of the opiate medication if that is the route you choose. There may be alternate treatments for your loved one as long as their quality of life is top of mind.

Seeking Help

If you believe your aging loved one is misusing their prescription painkillers or battling an alcohol addiction, it’s important to get immediate help.

  • SAMHSA’s National Help Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP
  • Treatment centers exist specifically for older populations. If you are looking into rehab centers, it is possible to find clinicians who are experienced treating geriatric issues. Aging Care has answers to some common questions caregivers may have about rehabilitation facilities.
  • An intervention can be a stepping stone into a conversation about what your senior is struggling with. SAMHSA suggests that one or two close loved ones be involved to create an intimate and safe space.
  • Individual or group counseling, like AA, takes a psychological approach towards addiction. This may be beneficial when other mental illnesses are involved because treating all disorders that are present is important.
  • Recovery support and relapse prevention is a vital part of the healing process. Once your loved one has gone through their desired course of treatment, working with a case manager who can check up on them and including friends and family in the recovery process is crucial to preventing relapse.
  • For an elderly individual, some treatment plans may start with a visit to their primary care physician to discuss their benefits if they are using Medicare. See the American Addiction Center’s website for more information.

How We Can Help

Psych360 provides comprehensive mental health solutions for long-term care communities. We deliver a hybrid of both on-site and telehealth psychiatric and psychological services for your residents. Connect with us at or give us a call at (330) 536-3746 for more information.

Share this Article