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Substance Abuse in Seniors: Why It Happens and How to Get Help

Substance abuse can happen at any age. Due to factors like declining health and chronic pain, more than 2.5 million seniors in America struggle with alcohol or drug dependency. 

Why substance abuse may happen to seniors

Imagine this: you turn 70 years old and find you’ve developed painful arthritis. Your doctor prescribes you painkillers, but you’re not worried about dependency because you’ve never abused drugs or alcohol in your entire life. However, after a few weeks or months, the one pill you normally take doesn’t seem to be working quite as well anymore, so you take 1.5 pills. This works for a little while longer, until you eventually build up a tolerance to this dosage as well, and continue to increase the dosage in order to find relief. 

This is the predicament millions that seniors (and younger people) with chronic pain find themselves in every year. Others struggle with substance abuse their entire lives. The Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services refer to these individuals as “hardy survivors.” In fact, seniors are some of the hardest-hit Americans within the opioid epidemic ravaging the country. 

Other reasons seniors may become addicted to a substance include:

  • Retirement
  • Loss of a spouse or loved one
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Financial stress
  • Unfavorable living situations
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Family conflict
  • Mental or physical health conditions
  • Other major life changes

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The dangers of substance abuse for seniors

As we age, our metabolism slows down. However, our brains become more sensitive to drugs and alcohol. This pairing makes it especially dangerous for seniors to use alcohol or drugs which are highly addictive. 

Benzodiazepines (or benzos) are used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and pain, but they are some of the most common and dangerous drugs for seniors to take due to their addictive properties. A few generously prescribed benzos include Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, and Valium. 

Signs of benzo addiction include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Excessive yawning
  • Diarrhea
  • Chills and goosebumps
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • General flu-like symptoms

Other drugs commonly (and accidentally) abused by seniors include sleeping pills like Ambien and opiate painkillers like Oxycodone. 

Why substance abuse in seniors is underdiagnosed

Substance abuse in seniors may mimic other medical or mental health conditions like diabetes, dementia, or depression. Some people may also chalk up symptoms of drug abuse to the aging process. Seniors are also more likely to exhibit memory loss and cognitive decline, which are major risk factors of alcohol and drug abuse. 

Due to under reporting of addiction, limited research data, and hurried office visits, doctors may not think to ask senior patients about their alcohol or excessive drug use. 

Get help

No matter how you came about it, addiction is not your fault. It’s okay to admit that you need help and to reach out to someone you trust to start treatment. 

Medicare covers inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation if you meet all of the following qualifications:

  • Your doctor deems the treatment medically necessary; 
  • You receive treatment from a Medicare-approved doctor, clinic, hospital, or rehab facility; and
  • Your provider creates a plan of care for your treatment process. 

For help with drug or alcohol dependency, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit their website to find a rehab facility near you. 

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