Prescription Drug Addiction in Seniors

Senior drug addiction is on the rise, and over 60s are becoming addicted to these drugs at a much faster rate than their younger counterparts. It has been said that close to a fifth of all seniors suffer from some kind of alcohol or drug problem, and the actual figure could be much higher due to severe underreporting.

Many seniors suffer in silence and their problems might be overlooked or confused with something else. 

Why is Drug Abuse Increasing Amongst Seniors?

As with all drug addictions, there is an element of shame, but as seniors typically have more health problems and easier access to drugs, it’s easier to see why these problems are on the rise.

Most seniors are addicted to drugs in the opioid or benzodiazepine class. When consumed excessively and over a long period, these drugs cause a number of issues:


A senior may not think to tell the doctor that they are using recreational drugs or abusing their prescription medications. They don’t want those pills taken away and they don’t want to disappoint the person tasked with keeping them healthy.

The problem is, many of the symptoms of substance abuse can mimic the symptoms of dementia, depression, and a host of other ailments. These symptoms include memory loss, nausea, sickness, insomnia, fatigue, constipation, and dry mouth.

It is important to keep your doctor, caregivers, and loved ones in the loop.

Breathing Problems

Many prescription medications, in particular sedatives and narcotic pain killers, suppress the breathing. When these drugs are combined or consumed in large doses, the respiratory system can shut down, leading to severe complications and even death.

Increased Fall Risk

The sedation caused by many prescription drugs, along with feelings of instability and dizziness, increases the risk of serious falls. These are common in the elderly and result in everything from minor bruises and cuts to broken bones.

Every year, close to 300,000 elderly Americans visit the hospital with a fractured hip, and while it’s something they can recover from, this recovery process takes up to 6 months and as many as a fifth never recover.

Mental Health Problems

Elderly drug users often start self-medicating after the death of a loved one. They are alone, depressed, and they see drugs as an escape. In the beginning, those drugs may provide them with some of the relief they seek, but before long, they stop having the same effect and need to take them just to feel “normal.”

At this point, the risk of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even hallucinations increases, making them feel more alone.

Heart Problems

Your blood pressure and heart rate can undergo significant changes following excessive consumption of prescription drugs. This may be less of an issue with opioids and benzodiazepines, which have more of an impact on the respiratory system, but it’s a very serious risk for drugs in the stimulant class.


Dehydration is more common in the elderly and causes numerous issues if it’s not dealt with. Substance abuse makes this condition even worse. Alcohol, for instance, severely dehydrates the body, while sedatives may leave the user fatigued, which means they don’t feel like visiting the kitchen and staying hydrated.

Opioids have a similar effect and also dry the mouth out. 


Constipation is another condition associated with aging. Usually, a few dietary changes and some simple lifestyle alterations can remedy the issue, but this is much trickier when substance abuse is introduced into the equation.

Opioids and benzodiazepines slow down digestion and cause dry and hard stools, making them difficult to pass. In the short-term, it’s a condition that can lead to uncomfortable bowel movements, as well as fissures and hemorrhoids. In the long-term, it causes blockages and much more serious issues.

Are You Addicted to Prescription Drugs?

The image of the stereotypical drug user is someone between the age of 20 and 50, with little in the way of a family or career. In fact, drug addiction can be seen in all walks of life and is just as rife in picturesque suburbia as it is on the street. 

Many seniors get addicted to drugs that are prescribed for pain, anxiety, or sleeping problems. They consume these drugs on a daily basis to meet their healthcare needs, and only when the withdrawals take hold do they realize they have a problem.

Sometimes, they forget to take their meds, don’t get a refill in time, and when the withdrawals hit, they dismiss them as a cold, flu, or something unrelated.

If you consume those medications every day and find yourself taking them to avoid withdrawal, you’re addicted. You don’t need to be consuming vast quantities and occasionally blacking out to be addicted to something. 

Getting Help for Elderly Drug Addiction

It’s never too late to quit drugs and you can always benefit from being sober and healthy. It doesn’t matter if you’re mobile or immobile, old or young, healthy or not. 

Everyone has heard stories of elderly people who gave up alcohol/drugs after years of addiction, only to lose a lot of weight, develop countless problems, and eventually pass away. 

These stories are true, but in all instances, the addiction would have killed them long before the sobriety. 

Look at the following options to seek help and sober up:

Tapering Down

The most common way to get sober is to gradually reduce your intake. That way, you can avoid the worst of the withdrawals and eventually reach a point where you’re no longer consuming the substance. 

There are a few problems with tapering, however. Firstly, it can take several years to get clean, and if the substance is having a major effect on your health, social life, and career, it will continue to do so along the way.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, you need to be ready for the change. If you start a taper because a loved one begged you and not because you’re ready to stop, you’ll eventually relapse and look for excuses to keep using.

Going Cold Turkey

Going cold turkey is when you stop taking a substance from one day to the next. You ride the acute withdrawals and get everything finished in a few days or weeks. It’s the quickest way to deal with the issue but it’s also the riskiest.

While cold turkey is often harmless in young opioid addicts, it causes serious problems in alcohol and benzodiazepine users. Furthermore, as seniors may have many underlying health problems and lack the resilience that younger people have, it’s not as easy for them to brush these symptoms off.

In other words, it’s not something we would recommend. 

Using Medication

The complications associated with alcohol addiction can be remedied with the use of medication. Ironically, one of the groups of medications prescribed for this purpose is benzodiazepines, which can be incredibly addictive as well. This speaks volumes to the severity of alcohol withdrawals and for the problems they can cause.

Milder and non-addictive medications can also be prescribed to deal with specific symptoms of withdrawal, including sleeping tablets for insomnia and loperamide for diarrhea.


The typical image of rehab is of a grand and expensive facility where slippered patients walk around with baggy eyes and a sluggish shuffle. However, outpatient rehab services are available as well, and you can employ many of the same techniques in your own home.

The goal of rehab is to keep you clean and avoid drugs and alcohol at all costs. They often try to deal with specific symptoms using diet, exercise, art therapy, supplements, and a balanced diet—all things that are available in your own home.

In addition, you get support from your friends and family. They are a shoulder to cry on and the guidance you need to get through difficult times.