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Elderly Drug And Alcohol Rehab Programs

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 3, 2019

People are often surprised to learn that elderly people abuse drugs and alcohol at extremely high rates. In fact, elderly substance abuse has become something of an unknown epidemic in the country, impacting an ever-increasing number of people. Sadly, this problem is often ignored or misunderstood and elderly people with addictions rarely get the help they need.

It is worth knowing more about elderly substance abuse, including the severity of its impact and where it originates. In this way, you can make an informed decision on treatment, whether for yourself or a loved one.

The Impact Is Shockingly Huge

Elderly addiction is a complex problem and one that has devastated a large part of the population. For example, a survey in 2008 found that 40 percent of all elderly people (defined as 65 or older) regularly drank alcohol. The people in this group were more likely to take high levels of medication (to treat problems caused by addiction) and to drink heavily on a regular basis. The truth is, elderly people should have no more than seven drinks total in a week or three in a single day.

Another troubling statistic is the number of elderly people abusing prescription drugs. Though the exact percentage is hard to calculate (due to how infrequently cases are reported), elderly people account for more than one-third of all prescription drug use in the country. Many of these prescription drugs are pain medications, which are among the most problematic and potentially addictive drugs on the market.

As a result, an increasing number of seniors (who may already be suffering from physical and mental health problems and who may be on a fixed budget) are becoming addicted to the medicines that were supposed to help them. Addiction to prescription medication is an often poorly understood problem and one that can quickly tear a person’s life and health to shreds.

Those are just the two most common substance abuse problems in the elderly. Elderly people also suffer from addiction to cocaine, heroin, morphine, marijuana, and many other substances. Medical marijuana use has become increasingly common in elderly people. This is understandable for people who have severe pain, but the use of more serious substances is problematic in the elderly. The heart of an older person is likely to give out more quickly when they use cocaine, even if they’re a regular user.

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The Influences On This Epidemic

What is causing this high rate of addiction in the elderly population? Primarily, it seems, depression and anxiety. One study found that 63 percent of elderly people that abused drugs said that their use was influenced by these twin totems of mental health disorders. These feelings were related to the realities of aging, such as physical pain, loss of friends and family, and problems with financial stability.

That’s why it’s not too shocking that an additional 30 percent said that financial problems influenced their addiction. The irony being, of course, that drug and alcohol abuse only contribute to those problems. Prescriptions drugs and alcohol were the substances used by about half of all surveyed elderly people, further reinforcing the statistics mentioned above.

Sadly, even though rehab admission for the elderly has jumped by 450 percent since 2000, overdoses remain the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in the elderly. These numbers are troubling and rarely discussed, as many drug addiction treatment programs are focused so heavily on prevention in teens. This means that the elderly people with addiction are often ignored.

What else influences elderly substance abuse? There are a variety of risk factors that may cause elderly people to turn to drugs and alcohol later in life. These include:

  • Living alone
  • Suffering from regular pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Living in a group home environment
  • Boredom or lack of anything else to do
  • Cognitive impairments, like Alzheimer’s (may cause a person to forget they took medication)
  • Isolation from friends and family members
  • Regular drug or alcohol use when young

Aging is a difficult process and its rigors often make drugs or alcohol a comforting way to self-medicate. Unfortunately, substance abuse causes more problems than it “helps,” making elderly substance abuse a problem that must be treated. Unfortunately, even with the previously mentioned increase in elderly rehab admission, only a small number of elderly addiction patients actually get help.

Problems That Make Treatment Difficult For The Elderly

Elderly people often struggle to commit to rehab or have problems during the rehab process. The reasons for these problems are complex, but they must be understood. Overcoming them is crucial to developing a treatment method that properly identifies an addiction problem and treats it successfully. Reasons that elderly people either avoid treatment or struggle during rehab include:

  • Lack of money – This often includes an inability to purchase a car or to get transported to a rehab center regularly.
  • No one willing to help – As people age, friends and loved ones pass away. Unfortunately, this leaves many elderly people with a severely decreased social support system.
  • Nobody takes it seriously – Addiction in the elderly often seems like “set behavior” to their friends and family. “Dad has always drank” is not a reason to allow him to continue his substance abuse.
  • Negative patterns of behavior – People’s minds and behavior work in a series of patterns. In elderly people, these patterns are often harder to break, making them more “stubborn.”
  • Physical and mental health concerns – The rigors of rehab are often feel too difficult for most seniors to handle. As a result, they don’t even bother attempting it.

The truth about many of these problems is that they can be solved. All seniors aged 65 and up qualify for some form of insurance, like Medicare, which can help them afford rehabilitation treatment. Calling a rehab center will create an immediate social network that will help them recover, one that takes addiction seriously. And negative patterns of behavior as well as physical and mental health problems can be treated in rehab.

The truth is, elderly people have nothing to lose and everything to gain by going to a drug addiction treatment center. It will challenge many aspects of their life, but it will give them increased independence and the better life that they deserve.

Treating Drug Addiction In The Elderly

Drug rehab in the elderly varies little from rehab in other segments of the population. The biggest change you’re likely to note is a heavier focus on treating the physical problems caused by addiction. Drug and alcohol abuse heavily impacts the heart, liver, mind, and other areas of the body, and elderly people with addictions have often suffered with one for decades or longer. As a result, they are often in pretty rough physical shape when they get into rehab.

Treatment of this sort will include treating malnutrition, managing any pain caused by addiction, addressing problems with potential organ failure, and helping vision and hearing problems. Being in good physical shape is important in rehab and addressing any associated problems early helps create a more positive environment for success.

Withdrawal is handled more delicately with elderly patients. It requires a slower decrease in dosage to keep the negative symptoms of withdrawal from causing extreme reactions. Elderly people are more prone to suffering from heart attacks, seizures, and other problems during withdrawal. This often extends the treatment period for the elderly, but it must be done.

Mental health treatment procedures are also tweaked slightly for the elderly, likely including a higher concentration of group therapy. The reason for this is to help introduce them to a support group. We all need people to help us through rough times and elderly people with addictions often lack that kind of support. Group therapy helps build those relationships.

Physical styles of therapy, such as exercise, yoga, and meditation, may also be done at a slower and more careful pace. It’s not that the elderly need to be handled with kid gloves in rehab, but that their bodies need a little extra care in order to stay healthy. This is also true of replacement medications and other medicines given to elderly rehab patients. Everything is done with special care to ensure that rehab goes smoothly and safely.

Learn More About This Troubling Topic

Elderly drug addiction is a troubling problem that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. The impact addiction has on the body is magnified in the elderly, meaning they are likely to suffer from higher rates of relapse and physical and mental health deterioration. Get your elderly loved one into rehab as soon as possible or check yourself into one if you are suffering from addiction.

If you need help finding a rehab near you or are interested in learning more about this topic, please contact us at today. We can serve as the guiding light you need to beat addiction and regain a healthy and happy life in your later years.

Drug Abuse - Prescription Drug Abuse Older Adults

National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism - Older Adults

Partnership For Drug-Free Kids - Depression, Anxiety Top Reasons Older Adults Abuse Drugs Or Alcohol, Survey Finds

Health In Aging - Drug And Substance Abuse

National Center For Biotechnology Information - Substance Abuse Among Older Adults

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