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Addiction Treatment for the Elderly

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In order to spot addiction in the elderly and know what to do, it is important to acknowledge that addiction is a disease. As such, it has symptoms, causes, and most importantly, treatment. It should receive the same care as any other illness would. Just like any other disease, it has triggers and causes, but pointing fingers is not the way to go. A person suffering from addiction needs support, even when being held accountable.

Addiction Treatment for the Elderly

How Do You Know If You’re Abusing Substances?

There are many factors to take into account when looking into substance abuse in the elderly. Addiction is not just a physical issue; it also has emotional and mental aspects to it. The changes that come with being older might be triggers for certain behavior. Many senior citizens might feel a sense of purposelessness once they retire. Additionally, many also feel isolated, which can bring on bouts of depression.

For those who suffer from mental disorders, their chances of turning to substance abuse are high. At any age, people might try to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. The main issue is that many cases of mental disorders go undiagnosed for decades. Someone over the age of 50 might suffer from them and not be aware of it. Thus, they could eventually try to deal with it without knowing that it’s more than what it seems. However, there’s a big difference between casual drinking or taking meds daily and having an addiction. 

Signs and Trigger of Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Although the effects and signs might vary from person to person, the most common red flags are:

  • Self-isolating and not contacting loved ones as always
  • Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Poor hygiene and/or personal appearance
  • Excessive manipulative and/or secretive behavior
  • Extreme changes in sleeping and eating habits (doing too much or too little of either)
  • Displaying frequent problems with concentration and/or memory
  • Recurring unexplained bruises and/or chronic pain
  • Stashing substances in unusual places and/or amounts
  • Extreme mood swings, irritability, depression and paranoia
  • Displaying any symptom common to alcoholism or substance abuse of the meds they take

Sometimes, one or another symptom in that list isn’t necessarily cause for concern. But if these issues become constant, it might mean that something’s wrong.

Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Although elders can become addicted to many different substances, they are most at risk for abusing certain types. Even if someone hasn’t experienced addiction to something when they were younger doesn’t mean they won’t at an older age. The elderly population often suffer from mental disorders like anxiety and depression, usually due to isolation. This makes them more prone to substance abuse in general, and consequently, addiction.

Alcoholism Among Seniors

The number one substance abused by the elderly is alcohol, since it’s easy to purchase. Alcoholism has been spiking among people aged 65 and older faster than any other demographic. Increased sensitivity to it due to lower body water content might make the person unaware of how drunk they’re getting. That puts them at risk of getting into accidents — about 60% of falling accidents are alcohol-related.

Alcohol and prescription drugs are not a good mix, but they tend to mix among elders as well. It’s not uncommon for seniors to need to take medication regularly. What many don’t know is that alcohol and meds interact in many different ways. Some have their side effects worsened, others are rendered inefficient by alcohol intake. But even though alcohol is the culprit of addiction and other issues among elders, it’s not the only one.

Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly

One of the main issues among the elder community is prescription drug abuse, especially of psychoactive and sedative medications. About 25% of these drugs are sold to elderly people in the U.S., and 17% of them abuse these substances. The elderly population uses prescription meds about three times more often than other demographics do. But the reasons why these drugs can be addictive varies.

Many seniors are prescribed painkillers that are the aforementioned psychoactive medications. These are often prescribed for chronic pain, and many of them contain some kind of opioid. Opioids can be safe to use if they are prescribed and patients follow up with their doctor. 

However, long-term use can be risky and might trigger addiction. They’re often prescribed for chronic pain or pain management after procedures and during cancer treatment. Opioids are highly addictive because they directly affect the brain’s reward system. When altering how the brain perceives pain, opioids help release neurotransmitters that make the person feel pleasure.

As for sedatives, like benzodiazepines, are often used for mental health issues like anxiety. Although they often cause dependency, they do not always cause addiction. The dependence comes from the balancing of neurotransmitters fixed by the substance. All users need to taper off it gradually, but that is standard for benzo use. The main issue is when the patient can’t seem to wean off the doses and feels the need to keep using. That is when addiction happens.

Treatment Options for Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Addiction treatment in general usually is made up of three steps: detox, substance abuse treatment, and aftercare. As previously mentioned, addiction doesn’t only bring on physical symptoms. This means that, while getting sober is needed, that alone is not enough to stop someone from relapsing again.

For elderly patients, any other underlying medical conditions (also called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders) need to be discussed prior to treatment. Teams need to be aware of these so they can medicate the patient accordingly.


Detoxification is the first step in any addiction treatment program, triggering what is called withdrawal. In this first phase, the patient will need to flush out the toxins in their body. During detox, the patient will experience physical and mental effects of withdrawal. These symptoms vary depending on the senior’s substance abuse, level of addiction, and stage of withdrawal. Some of them, however, might cause life-threatening symptoms like seizures.

The way this should be done depends on the substance being abused. For some drugs, like benzos, the process might be better if the doses are tapered, or lowered little by little. Others can be cut off abruptly. Another problem that might arise is the desire to use again, which is usually felt at the peak of detox. However, doing so might make the body go into shock. 

Medically assisted detox is the safest option for people hoping to detox. Patients get 24/7 supervision and help from a medical team as they help with pain management. This way, patients will be in a controlled environment, not putting themselves in risky situations. They also won’t have triggers and opportunities for relapse as they complete this stage. 

Substance Abuse Treatment

For substance abuse treatment in the elderly, senior patients will receive psychiatric help for their addiction. This is when they will engage in therapy, both in group and individual settings. The goal is to better understand the patient, help change behavior patterns and treat psychological conditions. Licensed professionals will give patients tools for relapse prevention, help them understand themselves, and teach them healthy coping mechanisms.

This stage can either be inpatient and outpatient. For the first, patients have to stay in the center round the clock till the end of the program. For the latter, they only need to come for sessions of treatment, the duration and frequency of each depend on their needs. Elderly patients who are in retirement homes might benefit more from inpatient programs, with 24/7 care. Some centers even offer age-specific treatment.

Aftercare Plan

Aftercare is as important as the previous parts of treatment. Once treatment is done, patients need to keep on working on their sobriety. This means attending support groups, going to therapy, and staying away from triggering situations. Should they need medication, they’ll need closer supervision from loved ones or licensed professionals.

Elderly recovering addicts need to be in a safe environment, with a proper support system. Isolation, lack of routine, and limited contact with loved ones can all trigger substance abuse in the elderly. Relapse is emotional and mental before it’s physical. Loved ones need to help as well, since elderly substance abusers are much more vulnerable.

If they stay home with family, their house should be as free from substances as possible. However, if they stay in a retirement home, it’s also possible to pick a substance-free facility that offers programs for recovering addicts. Seniors recovering from substance abuse must be surrounded by people who understand them and want to help.

Start Your Addiction Treatment at Footprints Today

Getting help for addiction can be tough at any age. Doing it after your 50s can be extra hard and will require extra help. No matter what you’re addicted to and your level of addiction, there is a program that’s right for you. Footprints can offer many options for you or your loved one!

Our team will get to know you and your needs and meet you where you are, providing all the services you can benefit from. We pride ourselves in constantly researching and designing new methods and activities. Patients can participate in many forms of therapy, from experiential therapy to even family therapy.

If you’d like to know more about our programs, contact us today. We will be happy to provide any information you might want and answer all your questions. Making a big decision like this is the first step on your journey, and we want to help you the entire way.

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