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Helping Older Adults Get Addiction Treatment

Elderly Americans suffering from substance abuse has doubled since 2006.

The number of elderly substance abusers in 2006 was 2.8 million. In 2020, the figure had doubled. Substance abuse in the elderly is more prevalent than you might think. It's a huge problem that carries myriad risks such as poor nutrition, cognitive impairment, social isolation, and interaction with potentially deadly medications. On top of that, there’s the added risk of injuries and falls.

Drug and alcohol abuse also leads to increased rates of mortality and higher healthcare costs. It’s such a huge issue that according to one of the articles by Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, the problem of substance use disorder (SUD) is likely to double in the elderly age group.

It’s clear that there’s an increasing need for specialized treatment around SUD in the elderly so they can live a normal, productive, and sober life.


Causes of Addiction in the Elderly

The reasons for the elderly to resort to drugs, alcohol, and other substances can be several. By the time a person reaches later years of life, he/she has experienced several health issues and major life-changing events such as death, retirement, and separation from kids. All of these things can be emotionally taxing.

Collectively, the baggage of these events can trigger a full-scale addiction which often starts with mild substance-abusing behavior.

Although triggers for elderly addiction are plentiful; below are the most common causes:

  • Retirement
  • Death of spouse, family member, close friends, and pet

  • Financial strains

  • Separation from the loved ones due to placement in a nursing home
  • Family conflict
  • Sleep issues
  • A decline in physical and mental health (memory loss, depression, and the strain of multiple surgeries, etc.)

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction in Senior Citizens

Most signs of drug and alcohol abuse remain consistent throughout a person’s life. But, it’s possible that some of them could change during old age. This can make early intervention and diagnosis a lot more challenging.

To further complicate things, many of the signs of age-related disorder also resemble drug abuse symptoms. For example, balance issues, decline in mental health, and cognitive disorders are all common during old age.

Because of this, it’s crucial that caregivers and loved ones watch out for any signs that might indicate drug abuse in the elderly, which more often than not will require drug abuse treatment.

Below are a collection of common signs of SUD in older people:

  • Alienating behavior; seeking isolation from family and friends
  • Strange odor from body, clothes, and breath
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • Confusion
  • Chronic pain with no apparent cause
  • Unexplained health concerns
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting
  • Depression
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene levels and grooming habits
  • Using alcohol and drugs in secret
  • Using certain medications even when the doctor warns against it
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Hoarding medicines
  • Memory loss
  • Exhibiting secretive behavior
  • Trouble balancing and coordinating
  • Mood swings
  • Unusually small or large pupils
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Slurred speech

Treatment Options:


Age-Specific Addiction Treatment Program

With an increase in SUD among the elderly, more and more facilities are now offering healthcare and addiction treatment options that cater specifically to the elderly.

Most programs cater to two types of groups:

  • Rehab centers that are designed for all ages
  • Another is age-specific and tailored to suit a certain kind of population
  • Just like teenagers with mitigating circumstances and special needs respond better to a specific program; so do older people with SUD.

In general, it’s better if a person is part of a group of people undergoing the same kind of challenges and receiving the same treatment. Since older people abuse substances for reasons different from the younger ones, it’s better to put them under a separate treatment program along with their peers.

Medical Detox

Detoxification is the process of ridding the system and the lifestyle of a person of the substance they’re abusing. Medically-assisted detox is done with professional help in a safe manner. It’s done to manage often painful withdrawal symptoms and cravings that can be dangerous if handled poorly.

Medical detox centers use medication and it can be performed in both outpatient and inpatient settings. It all depends upon the individual circumstances.

However, healthcare professionals who perform medical detox must be aware of other health concerns and the medications the person may be taking. Doing so is necessary to avoid any potentially harmful interaction between two medications.

Furthermore, they must evaluate the mental health of the person before dispensing detox medication as not all medicines may be suitable for older age groups. For example, benzodiazepines are used for stabilizing the condition of a person undergoing detox from psychoactive drugs. Benzos can build up over time in high-doses causing lasting toxic effects on a patient’s cognition.

For seniors with drug use, methadone treatment clinics are often a good option which help to slowly get off the drugs by using opioid-based, FDA-approved methadone medication.

It’s therefore important to put people over 65 years of age dealing with SUD on the type of treatment program that understands age-related complications and potential difficulties they may face during detox.

Residential/Outpatient Treatment


Outpatient and residential addiction treatment have largely similar sets of components. They both use individual/group counseling, therapy, and medication. Additional components include educating the patients about addiction, mutual support group meetings, using holistic addiction treatment methods, and conducting life skill workshops.

With an outpatient model, patients attend regular meetings and sessions during the day and go back to their residence in the evening. The patients are made to stay at the treatment facility and receive round the clock supervision.

The idea is to place them in a facility cut off from their previous life so as to avoid triggers that may be causing/worsening the addiction. Because of different life circumstances in old age, treatment must also be tweaked to be age-specific. Residential programs such as inpatient alcohol rehabs and outpatient treatment programs, should, therefore, divide older people into groups during counseling, therapy, and support group meetings.

It’s important in case of co-morbidity to follow an integrated treatment model that uses combined efforts of mental health and drug addiction treatment to treat both the conditions at the same time. It’s important that different professionals are on the same page in case there are multiple ongoing medications.

Final Thoughts


If your loved one or someone you know is struggling with SUD, make sure to find the right treatment program and seek proper treatment.

About the Author
John Lewis is a freelance writer who loves to help people who are struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction. John knows firsthand what it's like to deal with substance addiction, and has now been sober for 5 years. John is a frequent contribution to many addiction-related blogs and organizations such as the Addiction Treatment Division and Recovery Inn.