Elderly Substance Abuse

We know that drug and alcohol abuse among the elderly is a growing problem, but it seems that many people underestimate how widespread it really is. In order to help our older citizens who have substance abuse addictions, it will be necessary to learn more about why this occurs.

Loneliness Causes Substance Abuse

Loneliness and emotional life changes are the main reason older people turn to drugs or alcohol. “The life changes that occur as one reaches their twilight years are significant. The elderly can experience a mixture of social-emotional, physical, and functional changes that may encourage addiction. Seniors may turn to using medications that ease this reality or that appear to make life easier…. Doctors may prescribe ‘coping’ drugs to help patients with anxiety, depression, or sleeplessness, many of which are addictive,” according to the Center for Applied Research Solutions. (1) The result is that they become addicted to the medications. Prescription drug abuse is present in 12% to 15% of elderly individuals who seek medical attention. (2)

Accidental Drug Abuse

Some of these seniors may fall into drug abuse accidentally, such as when they don’t understand the prescription instructions and take more pills then necessary. Family members, friends, doctors, and pharmacists can help with this problem by going over the directions and helping make sure the patient is taking the meds as directed. If family members and friends would take a little extra time to stop by a senior’s house and check in with them about their health and medications, many seniors would be spared from prescription drub abuse or addiction.

Drug Abuse to Cope

Other seniors self-medicate knowingly with drugs or alcohol. These are the patients who are so alone, so depressed, or so anxious that the solution they’ve found is to take drugs or alcohol. These seniors will hide their problem from family and friends as long as they can, and many unsuspecting families have been surprised to learn about an elderly loved one’s substance abuse.

Unaware of a Problem

Too often, however, the substance abuse of the elderly goes on unsuspected, or without treatment. An estimated 60% of substance abuse is recognized in patients under the age of 60, while only 37% is recognized in patients over the age of 60. (2) There are a few main reasons for this. First of all, many people today still don’t suspect that the elderly would abuse any substances, therefore, they aren’t looking for a problem. Second, someone who does suspect a problem, such as a doctor or family member, may be too embarrassed to bring the topic up, for fear that they are wrong or will hurt the senior’s feelings. Finally, some people who are aware of an elderly person abusing drugs or alcohol may excuse the person because they are old and frail and therefore they are allowed to have their last little pleasure.

Many seniors are stuck in a life of substance abuse. It will take the awareness and understanding of others to help manage this problem.


(1) Watching over those who watched over us  

(2) Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly

Battling Drug and Alcohol Abuse

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