How to Recognize Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults

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When you think about those struggling with substance misuse and addiction, you are probably imagining young adults. Naturally, adolescents are more likely to engage in substance misuse than the general population. And studies focusing on the elderly are scarce. Substance misuse and addiction among the elderly is often thought to be a hidden pandemic in the United States and elsewhere. Even if there is no family history of substance misuse or addiction, it is important to be vigilant in the face of denial and look out for the warning signs of these diseases. This resource will help you understand the gravity of the problem, how to recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults, and offer assistance.

Understanding why substance abuse and addiction among the elderly are underreported

There are far fewer studies on substance addiction among the elderly than there are among younger people, but we still know that there are a lot of them. We at the rehab center Boynton Beach can confirm that the lack of recognition is due to the fact that older people with addictions aren’t getting diagnosed and therefore they aren’t getting treatment. Without a diagnosis, they cannot be included in the study. They go on to elaborate on why they think elderly people don’t seek treatment:

a lonely old man
Social isolation is the most common reason for older adults to turn to substance abuse.

1. Social isolation

To begin, American Addiction Centers suggests that older Americans’ failure to recognize and disclose substance addiction is due to their isolation from society. After retiring, most people’s social interactions with others will decrease. This is especially true for the elderly who often find themselves alone after the deaths of their friends and relatives. No one can take action to curb the spread of substance abuse if they fail to see the emergence of a problem. Many of these elderly people are totally alone. So, naturally, most people don’t recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults.

2. Ageism in the medical industry

Second, they imply that the condition may be underdiagnosed by medical professionals due to unconscious ageism. While the term “ageism” typically conjures up images of discrimination against the elderly (such as older workers being let go because of their age), it actually encompasses any form of prejudice towards people of any age. Many age-based acts, such as ignoring substance misuse because older persons “deserve” certain privileges, can be damaging even if done with good intentions. Even some doctors can have prejudices and they don’t even realize it.

a medical professional failing to recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults
It’s not uncommon for older adults to get misdiagnosed.

3. Concerns with quality of life

Loved ones and caregivers may often feel guilty about removing elders’ access to drugs. This might be due to a desire to avoid potential triggers or a worry that withdrawal from the substance will entail a significant decline in quality of life. When people are afraid, they are less likely to advocate for themselves or encourage others to seek assistance.

4. Misinformation

Misinformation has circulated for a long time, contributing to a lack of knowledge and, perhaps, treatment. Infrequent usage and irregular dosing schedules are often the first signs of drug dependence. It’s possible that neither the elderly nor their caretakers will notice a problem if they aren’t informed about what to look for. Or if they fail to recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults.

Furthermore, many mature individuals were exposed to drug abuse myths and disinformation through anti-drug propaganda films throughout their formative years. It’s possible that the emphasis on a connection between morality and drug use in these media led some seniors to the conclusion that they must be awful people if they struggle with substance misuse. Additionally, they frequently presented addicts in extreme, frightening ways, rather than showing realistic examples of addiction.

How does substance abuse affect older adults?

Substance misuse can have a disproportionately harmful effect on the health of the elderly because of the inherent physical and mental health issues that come with age. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, our metabolism for drugs and alcohol slows with age. This suggests that the elderly may be more vulnerable to the effects of such chemicals.

an old man sitting at a bar
In order to recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults, you need to know how it can affect and what warning signs to look out for.

Substance abuse may also amplify the effects of preexisting mental health conditions as people age. For instance, mental health problems may become much more severe if prescription medicines are used incorrectly. Patients over the age of 50 who abuse prescription opioids or benzodiazepines (benzos) are more likely to have suicidal thoughts, according to research published in 2019.

And we talk about alcohol abuse, older folks may get intoxicated more rapidly than younger people because of their greater blood alcohol content (BAC) due to the slower metabolization of alcohol. Heavy alcohol usage (defined as three or more drinks daily), particularly among the elderly, has been linked to accelerated cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia. If an elderly person is taking a drug known to interact badly with alcohol, they are at an even greater risk.

The Roots of Senior Substance Abuse and Addiction

Causes of drug abuse disorder in the elderly include:

Long-term illness or distress

Medications having the potential for addiction are commonly used to treat chronic diseases or discomfort. For example, more and more adults are suffering from anxiety and depression nowadays. If their doctor is unaware of their substance abuse issues and they prescribe them Adderall or a similar drug, they can very easily develop an addiction to Adderall as well. And this will oftentimes lead them into intensive outpatient program Florida or inpatient, for more severe cases.

Neglect and abuse

Physical violence, sexual abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect by a caretaker are all examples of elder abuse. Substance abuse is a common coping mechanism for victims of domestic violence, whereas neglect can lead to pharmaceutical overuse and addiction.

an old sad lady
Older people who are neglected by their children or relatives often turn to alcohol.

Drastic lifestyle change

The need for long-term care, retirement, death of a loved one, disability, solitude, or loneliness can all prompt people to seek out alcohol or drugs as a coping method. Further, the alterations may cause mental health issues that ultimately result in addiction. Sudden changes in life are one of the most common causes of substance abuse in elderly citizens.

Problems with mental health

Substance misuse has been connected to the stresses and diseases associated with aging. Rapid life transitions, as mentioned above, can cause feelings of sadness and anxiety, and those who already struggle with these or other mental health issues are at a higher risk for developing drug use disorders. However, drug misuse may occur alongside or be a cause of practically any mental or cognitive health issue.

How to recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults?

It’s crucial that we know the many chemicals that might threaten the lives of our loved ones. Here is a list of the most often misused drugs among the elderly and how to recognize if our loved one is using them. We also provided information on their possible dangers, the telltale indications of addiction, and the many routes of access.


Alcohol is one of the more common coping mechanisms among the elderly. A possible contributing factor is the widespread availability of alcohol in grocery shops and bars thanks to authorized distribution channels. In addition, many people find it challenging to spot the signs of alcohol abuse. Signs of alcohol abuse sometimes mimic those of natural aging, making it difficult to make the connection between the two. If you notice that your elderly loved one starts speaking slower, disengaging from conversations, avoiding responsibilities and family members, etc, they may be dealing with substance abuse. In this case, they may even have to go through alcohol rehab Florida. And rehabilitation of an elderly person is much harder.


Commonly recommended for severe or chronic pain are synthetic opioids such as oxycodone (Percocet and OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and fentanyl. With 30% of the elderly population experiencing chronic pain, many may be administered opioids despite their significant potential for abuse. Most people who misuse opioids also have access to prescriptions from their doctors. Although their requests may eventually lead to lower doses or the exploration of alternatives to opioids for pain. As a result, “dealing,” the illegal distribution of opioids obtained through prescriptions, has become increasingly frequent. Examples of symptoms of opioid dependence include: running out of medications quickly, hiding them, vomiting, and cognitive impairment.

meds and drugs on the table
Pay attention to your loved ones’ opioid consumption.

Benzodiazepines (Benzos)

Psychoactive medicines that work as relaxants include benzodiazepines, which include Valium, Ativan, Xanax, and Midazolam. Drugs like these are frequently administered to people who suffer from mental health issues like depression, anxiety, insomnia, muscular spasms, and epileptic attacks. However, it should be mentioned that the danger of Alzheimer’s disease makes benzos unsuitable for treating insomnia in the elderly. The following are some warning indicators of substance misuse: memory loss, profuse sweating, difficulty with spatial orientation, and slurred speech.


Cocaine is typically associated with youthful celebrations, so its inclusion on a list of chemicals frequently misused by the elderly may come as a surprise. One research speculated that this was because Baby Boomers “…having lived through the societal shifts associated with the 1960s onward…they are bringing new attitudes, acceptability, and, at times, habits of drug use with them.” They go on to say that this new cohort of seniors is altering the drug landscape by making cocaine more popular among older people than it was among prior generations. If you’re wondering how to recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults, this is what you need to look out for. If you suspect that they are using cocaine, look for dilated pupils, excess energy, paranoia, or insomnia.

Which health insurance program is best for drug addicts?

It’s estimated that just a small percentage of people in the US who have an addiction to alcohol or drugs really get help. There are a number of barriers that might prevent someone from getting help for drug usage. The expense of treatments is a common barrier to care. Inpatient care is a common component of every drug recovery program because of the severity and duration of drug addiction. Contrarily, substance abuse therapy is typically covered by medical insurance.

a doctor holding chocolate coins
Almost all insurance programs offer some sort of coverage for substance abuse treatments.


The federal government provides health insurance for active-duty servicemen and their families through Tricare. Mental health services are included in the wide range of medical options made available by these plans. Does Tricare cover alcohol rehab? The answer is yes. Almost two hundred different medical conditions are covered in this curriculum.


Aflac is well-known in the insurance industry for its flexible policies that can be tailored to the needs of a wide range of customers. Medication for depression and other mental health issues, as well as participation in a treatment program, are covered. But does Aflac cover alcohol rehab? The situational specificity of this topic makes answering it difficult.


Does Cigna cover alcohol rehab? Cigna covers rehab for substance abuse as well as alcoholism.

Blue Cross Blue Shield:

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association offers low-cost, all-inclusive healthcare coverage for a wide variety of medical procedures. Does Blue Cross Blue Shield cover alcohol rehab? All medical costs are covered by it. Treatment for mental health issues including depression and substance abuse are among those that are covered.


Humana is yet another affordable and flexible health insurance option for families. When it comes to issues of mental health, Humana covers many medical costs that may arise. However, the question remains: Does Humana cover alcohol rehab? Of course. Treatment for mental illness includes this.

Treatment options for the elderly

Liver and pancreatic illnesses, immune system disorders, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and seizures are only some of the conditions that can be made worse by alcohol and drug addiction among the elderly. So, do not wait to take action if you suspect an older loved one is struggling with substance abuse. 

an older man on a therapy session
Although there is still a stigma connected to substance abuse, there are plenty of treatments that can help you make a full recovery.

Your family member may be eligible for a senior-focused drug treatment program. Addiction support groups tailored to older adults are a common component of care. Providing patients with a community of people who can understand and empathize with one another while also providing a constructive outlet for their own motivation and coping strategies. Due to the greatly increased risk for problems during detoxification, inpatient care is suggested for seniors if detox is required as part of therapy. It’s never too late to get help, and there’s always hope for a full recovery. We need to learn how to recognize substance abuse and addiction in older adults first.

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