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Addiction Treatment For Seniors/Older Adults

Older adults often suffer from addiction, but the signs of substance use or alcoholism may be unnoticed. Even when the warning signs are recognized, the available addiction recovery programs may not be effective. The reasons that seniors become addicted to drugs or alcohol are complex and need to be addressed in outpatient addiction treatment programs that serve the needs of these unique individuals.

Because the aging process can mimic the symptoms of drug or alcohol misuse, and the perceived social stigma among an older peer group, many elder Americans do not check themselves into addiction treatment centers. However, there are outpatient programs tailored to you or your loved one that address all aspects of the disease.

Let’s discuss the factors that contribute to addiction in older adults, what types of substances are most likely to be misused, and what types of therapy are most effective in helping seniors break free from addiction.

What Causes Drug and Alcohol Addiction in the Elderly?

Older adults frequently have co-occurring medical conditions that require treatment, a lifetime of possibly traumatic events with which to cope, and social pressures that encourage drinking and which may shame those who seek treatment for their addiction.

Risk factors of addiction for older Americans include:1

  • Medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, or dementia
  • Increased sensitivity to medication and slower drug metabolism due to age
  • Using psychoactive medications for long periods of time
  • Taking multiple prescription drugs at the same time
  • Drinking alcohol in combination with prescription drugs
  • Chronic pain, including pain after repeated surgical procedures
  • Cognitive decline, sleep, depression, or anxiety disorders
  • Being physically disabled or with reduced mobility
  • Misdiagnosis by health care professionals
  • Having a tendency to self-medicate and an avoidance coping style
  • Being in a life transition, such as early retirement, bereavement, or relocation

How Many Older Adults Are Suffering From Addiction?

Studies show that the rates of drug addiction and alcoholism are rising among older adults around the world. Some of the statistics reported show that:2

  • 1 in 5 men and 1 in 10 women over 65 years of age drink more than the safe recommended limit.
  • The number of people over 40 who seek addiction treatment for drug use continues to rise each year.
  • Older adults are less likely to publicly acknowledge that they have a drinking or drug problem, meaning many go unreported.

What Substances Are Most Often Misused by Seniors?

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among older adults, but other drugs are often involved. Using these substances in combination with prescription drugs may cause dangerous interactions within the body.1

Based on national surveys, drug use statistics among the elderly show:1

  • 7.2% of Americans between the ages of 50 and 65 report using illicit substances in the past month.
  • Elders between 50-64 years of age report high levels of psychoactive drug use than those over age 65.
  • Almost 48% of adults 60-64 years old reported using illicit drugs during their lifetime.
  • Older adults who use illicit drugs may choose cannabis four times more often than other drugs, possibly due to medical marijuana and its use for treatment in symptoms of disease or side effects of other medications.
  • Almost three million adults over 50 reported using their prescription medications for “non-medical” use.
  • The estimate of prescription drug misuse or addiction among older women is approximately 11%.
  • 1.4% of those over 50 years of age are believed to abuse prescription opioids.
  • The psychiatric medication benzodiazepine for older adults is not recommended, yet estimates for their use are between 15-32% of the population.
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers are also prescribed to older adults at a much high rate than to younger people.

What Is Polypharmacy and How Is It Harmful?

Taking many prescription medications at the same time is the definition of polypharmacy. Caregivers may not be aware that these chemicals can react inside the body to create new compounds or change the rate at which drugs are excreted from the body.

Because of the effects that the patient cannot predict, the interactions may lead to addiction even when there is no intentional abuse of the drugs being prescribed. Once a combination of drugs or substances triggers an addictive response, the patient may find they experience withdrawal if they stop using one of the interacting components. This is known as “unintentional addiction” and may become firmly established before it is identified—or it may go undiagnosed completely.

These risks can build when over the counter, herbal, or recreational drugs are included in the mix. Alcohol, as the most common substance abused by seniors, interacts in harmful ways with these substances:

  • Anxiety or depression medicines
  • Cough syrup, cold and allergy medicine
  • Pain medication, including aspirin and acetaminophen
  • Sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, and herbal remedies

Physiotherapist working with patient

What Therapies and Addiction Recovery Programs Are Most Effective for Seniors?

Just as with younger individuals, inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment for older adults needs to be flexible and individualized based on their unique needs. Some of the elder-specific treatment strategies and considerations include:1

  • Providing both individual and group therapy to reduce isolation and shame associated with drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Offering both integration with the younger population in addiction treatment centers, as well as age-specific groups that can help older adults open up more readily during therapy.
  • Using supportive therapy models (STMs) that are less confrontational are more readily accepted by older adults, who may feel disrespected by aggressive approaches during addiction treatment.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which works to change the sequences of thought, emotion, and action that lead to the addictive behaviors being treated. CBT is highly structured and has been shown to be helpful for older adults who may have memory challenges.
  • Creating a comprehensive and complete treatment plan tends to produce better outcomes than not adapting treatment programs for seniors’ specific needs.
  • Self-help groups can reduce isolation and feelings of shame, but some older adults may feel inhibited about participating fully in a setting that focuses primarily on the challenges faced by younger individuals.

Happy senior couple having breakfast with their grandchildren at home

Finding Addiction Treatment Centers with Programs for Older Adults

You may be one of the older Americans struggling silently with addiction and, if so, reaching out to a well-respected outpatient addiction treatment center will open the door to the resources you need to fully recover. Having dealt with a lifetime of challenges, your rich history and past medical or life challenges do not need to be overwhelming when the right tools are available to help.

Or, you may care for an older person or have a family member who seems to be on the decline despite regular medical care, or who has other risk factors, including a long-term medication schedule that includes psychiatric drugs or narcotic painkillers. Speaking with a professional team can help either set your mind at ease or find a senior-focused program to get your loved one the guidance they need.

RECO Intensive in Delray Beach, Florida can help you approach these issues with the resources standing by to make meaningful change happen at any phase of life. Reclaiming a life rich in relationships and experiences starts with taking the step yourself or making a life-saving intervention. While it can be difficult to talk to an older family member who has always been an authority figure in your life, remember that, as they have supported you, you can support them in choosing treatment.

Anyone can recover from addiction with the motivation to do so and the right plan for treatment. With partial hospitalization programs (PHP) and dual diagnosis mental health support, no matter how severe the addiction or how long it has been established, we can help. Contact RECO Intensive today to achieve freedom from addiction and wellness for the golden phase of life.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4146436/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6650788/

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