Written By: Linda Whiteside


Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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Do elderly adults struggle with substance abuse?

When most people think of drug or alcohol abuse, they do not imagine seniors. However, seniors are actually at a higher risk for developing drug and alcohol addictions than the general population. When people get older, they experience a wide range of changes. They finish their careers and enter retirement. Their social circles change, and their family dynamics shift. Aging brains and bodies can lead to health problems. Some elderly adults have difficulty with tasks they may have once found easy, and it may take some time to get used to reduced independence. These changes can be difficult, but they are far more difficult for seniors who are abusing or misusing drugs or alcohol.

Substance use disorders among the elderly population are often overlooked. As of 2019, there are 54 million seniors in the United States. 2.5 million of them struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. This public health problem is becoming increasingly more severe with each passing day. Unfortunately, many seniors and their family members tend to ignore the problem. Symptoms of substance abuse are often dismissed as signs of other unrelated aging problems. It is important for family members, caretakers, and seniors themselves to be able to recognize the signs of an addiction. It is also crucial to understand that treatment options for seniors with addictions are available. No matter how old you are, recovery is possible.

Elderly Adults and Drug Abuse

Drug abuse is always dangerous. For seniors, however, the consequences of drug abuse are often far more deleterious. People of advanced age take longer to recover when they get sick or when they put toxic substances in their bodies. Seniors may also be more vulnerable to overdoses, simply because their bodies are less rugged. A slowed metabolism can make it more difficult for seniors to process the drugs they take, which can make even a small dose dangerous. As a result, it may not take much for a senior to develop a substance use disorder.

Seniors also regularly take medications to treat their health problems. These medications, which range from over-the-counter medications to prescription drugs, are often essential for everyday functioning. When seniors take illicit drugs on top of these essential medications, drug interactions can be unpredictable — and often quite dangerous.

It is also important to note that essential medications and recreational drugs are not always entirely separate categories for seniors. While some medications are difficult to abuse, certain prescribed medications have a high potential for abuse. Using anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines and pain-relieving prescription opioids can easily lead to addiction, even when taken as prescribed. Seniors frequently become addicted to prescribed drugs, either through deliberate abuse or accidental misuse.

Facts and Statistics on Elderly Adults and Drug Abuse

Seniors take prescription drugs to treat a wide variety of ailments, from insomnia to chronic pain. In fact, 40% of the prescriptions that doctors write are intended for seniors. Many seniors take multiple drugs at once. An estimated 30% of seniors regularly take five or more prescription drugs. Perhaps most dangerously, one-fourth of all seniors take high addictive medications. While young people are often prescribed addictive medications as well, seniors are far more likely to be prescribed addictive medications on a long-term basis. For these reasons, seniors are extremely vulnerable to prescription drug addiction.

Other factors that make seniors more vulnerable to drug addiction include:

  • Slowed metabolism and increased sensitivity to medication
  • Taking multiple drugs simultaneously
  • Unpredictable interactions among prescribed drugs
  • Using psychoactive medications on a long-term basis
  • Comorbid health conditions (such as dementia, high blood pressure, and diabetes)
  • Surgical procedures requiring prescription pain relievers
  • Misdiagnosis from physicians
  • Cognitive decline resulting in accidental misuse of medications
  • Increased likelihood of self-medicating
  • Higher rates of chronic pain
  • Higher rates of anxiety disorders and sleep disorders
  • Combining prescription drugs with alcohol

Researchers are increasingly recognizing the role of social isolation in addiction. Individuals who have strong social support systems are not only less likely to engage in substance abuse, they are also more likely to recover from addictions successfully. Tragically, older adults increasingly live alone. In 1900, only 6% of seniors lived by themselves. By 1990, however, the percentage of seniors living alone had shot up to 29%. Seniors who live by themselves are more likely to develop substance use disorders, and it is also more likely that their addictions will go unrecognized and therefore untreated.

What Substances are Elderly Adults Abusing?

Seniors abuse a wide variety of prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and illicit drugs. The illicit drugs that seniors abuse include commonly abused substances like cannabis and cocaine. However, seniors are far less likely to abuse party drugs than their young counterparts. In general, the most commonly abused drugs among the elderly population are benzodiazepines and opioids.


Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative. These tranquilizers are often prescribed to treat insomnia, panic attacks, and anxiety disorders, which are all common conditions among elderly adults. Each year, doctors write approximately 17 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines that are intended for seniors. Common benzodiazepines include Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin. These medications are highly effective for reducing the symptoms of anxiety. However, they are highly addictive. Young people are often advised to take benzodiazepines for short periods of time to reduce the likelihood of physical dependence, but elderly adults are far more likely to take them on a more long-term basis.

Benzodiazepines are extremely addictive. After only a short period of time, seniors can become physically dependent on them. Regular benzodiazepine use can exacerbate cognitive decline, cause emotional disturbances, and increase the likelihood of risk-taking behavior. As tolerance grows, the anxiety and sleep problems that the drugs were originally intended to treat can get worse, resulting in further dosage increases. Once an addiction has set in, quitting benzodiazepines can feel nearly impossible. The withdrawal effects can even be life-threatening, especially for elderly adults.


It is common for seniors to suffer from chronic pain. They also get invasive surgeries more frequently than the general population. Seniors are also susceptible to falls and other accidental injuries. In all of these circumstances, doctors are likely to prescribe painkillers. Most prescription painkillers are opioids. Heroin is also an opioid. Many seniors, however, are unaware that the drugs they take for their pain are sometimes many times more potent than heroin. These dangerous and addictive prescription opioids include oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, and hydrocodone.

Prescription opioids are often perceived as safe simply because they are legal. In reality, they are extremely addictive and have a high potential for overdose. Prescription painkillers like fentanyl are many times more powerful than heroin. Taking the wrong dosage can easily result in life-threatening respiratory depression. Older adults with physical health ailments are especially vulnerable to overdoses, especially when they take multiple medications or when they drink while taking opioids.

Elderly Adults and Alcohol Abuse

When it comes to recreational substance abuse, alcohol is by far the most abused substance among seniors. The elderly population uses alcohol as both a coping mechanism and a vice. This is true of the general population of the United States as well. Among seniors, however, alcohol abuse is often far more extreme. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) claims that widowers over the age of 75 have higher rates of alcohol use disorder than any other population.

The high rates of alcohol abuse among elderly adults have many causes. Some sociologists suspect that alcoholism runs rampant among seniors for cultural reasons. The Baby Boomer generation engaged in more substance abuse in their youth than any generation since. Many of the habits seniors had while they were young carry over into their twilight years.

Unfortunately, seniors have significantly reduced ability to handle alcohol consumption. Elderly adults have slower metabolisms and less sturdy organs, and it often takes their bodies longer to process alcohol. According to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, adults over the age of 65 should not drink more than seven drinks per week and no more than three drinks a day. While seniors are less likely to engage in binge drinking than their younger counterparts, regular and heavy consumption is common — and often hidden. Drinking above the recommended levels can cause health problems and exacerbate pre-existing health problems for elderly adults.

Alcohol abuse is also especially dangerous for seniors because they take so many other medications. A high percentage of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications have warnings on their bottles stating that alcohol consumption is ill-advised while taking them. Interactions between medications and alcohol are often dangerous and unpredictable. In some cases, such as when alcohol is combined with benzodiazepines or opioids, the risk of overdose increases significantly.

Unfortunately, elderly adults often develop alcohol use disorders while living in relative isolation. For this reason, it is sometimes difficult for family members and other loved ones to recognize dangerous drinking patterns. However, alcohol abuse among the elderly will generally manifest in many clear signs. Indicators of an alcohol problem include:

  • Missing medical appointments
  • Poor grooming or self-care
  • Regular falls or accidental injuries
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Unstable hypertension
  • Visiting the emergency room more frequently
  • Mood problems, such as angry outbursts or increased irritability
  • Consuming alcohol before, during, or after meals
  • Behavior changes
  • Isolation from friends or family members
  • Reduced engagement in hobbies

If you or a loved one is exhibiting one or more of these signs, they may have a problem with alcohol. Fortunately, treatment options are available for seniors with alcohol use disorders. Outpatient rehab may be the best course of action.

Elderly Adults and Mental Health

While the vast majority of older adults have good mental health, seniors are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions. Neurological disorders are more common at this age, and the inevitable changes that come with aging can cause significant emotional distress. According to the World Health Organization, 20% of adults over the age of 60 suffer from either a neurological disorder or a mental health disorder. These conditions are responsible for 6.6% of all disabilities among the elderly.

Getting older is difficult. Many adults get their sense of self-worth from their careers and their families. As children move out and seniors transition into retirement, they may be increasingly isolated and unsure of their purpose. Moreover, increased health problems and decreased independence can make life feel significantly more arduous. All of these changes are natural, but seniors who are unprepared for them or lack coping skills are likely to develop mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. In some cases, mental and neurological problems are simply a direct result of aging, such as in the case of dementia.

It is important to recognize the mental health problems and addiction among the elderly often go hand in hand. Roughly 50% of individuals with mental health disorders suffer from addiction, and similarly half of all people with addictions suffer from mental health conditions. These comorbid conditions often develop in tandem, with each one exacerbating the other. The two most common classes of medication that seniors abuse are benzodiazepines and opioids, both of which are often used for self-medication purposes. Seniors may abuse these drugs to obtain temporary relief from depression, anxiety, or emotional distress, only to find themselves addicted.

Preventing Substance Abuse with Elderly Adults

Substance abuse among the elderly is often the result of misdiagnosis. Doctors and even close family members often fail to recognize the warning signs of early addiction. This is due to several reasons, including rushed office visits, insufficient awareness of elderly substance addiction, and limited data. In many cases, the signs of substance use disorder overlap with the everyday signs of aging. The physical and mental health problems that stem from drug and alcohol abuse are often similar to the signs of common disorders, such as dementia, depression, and diabetes. As a result, physicians often neglect to treat the root problem: drug and alcohol abuse.

Unfortunately, when addiction is misdiagnosed, doctors are likely to prescribe medications to treat the issue. When seniors go to the doctor to complain about anxiety, for instance, their anxiety may stem from alcohol withdrawal. Most physicians are unlikely to suspect alcohol abuse, and they may misdiagnosis the senior with anxiety disorder. As a result, they may prescribe anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, which interact dangerously with alcohol and can easily lead to addiction and overdose.

Seniors are also far more likely to mismanage their own medication intake. Misdosing is often accidental, but this doesn’t make it any less disastrous. Seniors who suffer from cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease are likely to misread or completely ignore warning labels on their medications. They may take their dosage at the wrong time or take the wrong quantities. This can easily lead to chemical dependence, addiction, and in some cases overdose.

The best way to prevent substance abuse among the elderly is to stay vigilant. This means watching out for warning signs. It is important for family members, friends, and caregivers to stay actively involved in a senior’s life. Seniors who have strong social support systems are not only less likely to develop an addiction, they also more likely to have their substance addiction recognized and treated.

For elderly adults suffering from cognitive decline, preventing misdosing is critical. It is important that these seniors not live alone. Family members should work to manage their medication intake. Independent living communities, retirement communities, assisted livings, and long-term care facilities generally offer medication management to ensure proper dosage.

Treatment Options for Elderly Adults Struggling with Substance Abuse

It is difficult being the family member of a senior with a drug or alcohol addiction. You may have gone many years blissfully unaware that your loved one had a problem with substance abuse. You may not have realized what pills they were taking, or how long they were taking them. When an elderly loved one becomes obviously impaired by their drug or alcohol use, it can be painful to watch. If your loved one seems to be struggling, is defensive about their prescriptions, or exhibits disturbing behavioral changes, it is likely time to seek help.

Many elderly adults and their family members believe the myth that it is “too late” for them to recover from addiction. Expressions like “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” cannot be more wrong, however. In truth, even seniors with very severe addictions are more than capable of recovering. By enrolling in a clinical addiction treatment program, they can tackle their dependence, develop better coping skills, and learn to live quality lives in their retirement.

Outpatient programs are often recommended for seniors. These flexible addiction treatment programs do not require seniors to uproot themselves. They can continue to live at home, either alone, with their families, or in an assisted living program. Outpatient programs involve attending therapy on a regular basis, either once or several times a week, depending on the severity of the addiction. Clients engage in a wide variety of treatment modalities, from medication-assisted treatment to group therapy. Most outpatient programs also provide opportunities for clients to broaden their social support systems and rediscover the joys of life.

Senior Addiction Treatment at NuView Treatment Center

NuView Treatment Center is an outpatient addiction treatment Los Angeles, California. Our modern facility accepts people of all backgrounds, ages, genders, and races. No matter where you are in life, we will help you pave a path forward and build a quality life free of drug and alcohol dependence. Our highly trained and compassionate team utilizes the latest evidence-based treatment methods to ensure long-term sobriety.

NuView Treatment Center offers multiple levels of care for different addiction severities. Clients often progress from one level of care to another as they develop a surer footing in sobriety. These levels of outpatient care include:

  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)
  • Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs)
  • Outpatient programs (OPs)
  • And aftercare planning services

We recognize that the challenges that seniors with addictions face are often unique. Fortunately, our treatment programs are never one-size-fits-all. Our staff members develop individualized treatment plans for each client. Clients make progress each week toward addressing the underlying issues behind their substance abuse, while also working simultaneously to develop the coping tools they need to stay sober and live quality lives. We work with all clients, including seniors, to ensure that they not only stay sober but also feel engaged and fulfilled in their everyday lives.

At NuView Treatment Center, we work with families and caregivers to ensure that both clients’ needs and their family members’ needs are met. If you are interested in discussing your unique situation, contact us today for a free and confidential consultation.

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