Patient Daily Living

Dependency & Addiction Among Seniors


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For many people, the elderly are the last group that they'd imagine would be dealing with issues involving alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately,new data indicates that the number of senior citizens with drug problems is on the rise for a variety of complicated reasons. More than just vitamins and supplements, to understand understanding senior drug abuse and dependency, you can be prepared to get your older loved one help if you suspect a drug problem.


Pain Medications

The abuse of prescription painkillers is on the rise in all age groups. In 2010, over 5 million Americans admitted to being prescription painkiller abusers, while nearly double that admitted to having used prescription pain killers inappropriately within the previous year. What may start off as a legitimate reason to take prescription pain killers can sometimes lead to dependency and addiction, as is the case with many elderly painkiller addicts.

Elderly adults have a high potential for addiction to opioid pain medications. These prescription drugs include medicines like oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone with acetaminophen (Vicodin), and oxycodone with acetaminophen (Percocet). Many seniors begin taking these medications for legitimate reasons, such as recovering from a fall or surgical procedure or to combat pain resulting from a medical condition, but unfortunately, if your elderly loved one takes the drug for an extended period of time, addiction can develop.

Older adults are at a high risk for prescription drug dependency and addiction because they often take at least one prescription medicine per day. While Americans over the age of 65 only make up 13% of the country's population, they consume roughly one-third of all the prescription drugs. In addition to the frequent access that they have to prescription painkillers, seniors can also develop an addiction as their liver's ability to properly filter medicine from the body slows down, which is a normal part of the aging process.


Antidepressants have assisted millions of people of all age groups to cope with serious conditions, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. While medical providers are conflicted as to whether or not antidepressants can result in addiction, it is clear that when many people stop taking them, severe withdrawal symptoms may occur. Common complaints include trouble sleeping, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, mood swings, suicidal ideations, muscle tremors, and difficulty coordinating speech movements.

Despite the belief that antidepressants don't cause dependency, there are a growing number of people who use antidepressants who report addiction and similar symptoms that require treatment. If you feel that your elderly loved one might be addicted to antidepressants or another prescription drug, consider implementing the following strategies:

  • Ensure that he is following the prescribed dose of the medication, and speak to his medical provider if you feel that he is taking the medication improperly.
  • Control access to the medications in pre-portioned containers, which can be found at stores that specialize in medical supplies for the elderly.
  • If advised to take a medication as needed, encourage your loved one to only take a dose when necessary.
  • Look for alternative and holistic solutions that may be able to help ease your loved one's depressive symptoms.
  • Consult with treatment facilities about anti-depressant addiction programs, specifically those that cater to the elderly.
  • Ensure that your elderly loved one is taking care of himself in other ways, such as getting enough exercise and focusing on proper nutrition.

It is also important to remember that your elderly loved one should only stop using anti-depressants with the recommendation of a physician and a gradual plan in place.

Sleep Medications

According to the National Sleep Foundation, approximately 44% of older adults experience at least one nighttime symptom of insomnia several nights per week. This leads many people to seek out solutions in the form of prescription and over-the-counter medications. About one-third of older Americans take sleeping pills, which may be called tranquilizers or sedative-hypnotics, and these drugs work by affecting the spinal cord and brain. Both prescription and over-the-counter varieties exist in order to help seniors to get longer and more restful sleep at night.

Barbiturates are commonly prescribed to seniors in order to treat insomnia, but they can be especially potent to older adults. Older bodies will break down the drug and eliminate it slowly. Since the drugs are generally distributed in body fat, which is often higher among people of advanced age, the drug is released gradually, thus prolonging its effect. The risk of addiction is so great that most medical professionals do not recommend seniors take barbiturates on a regular basis.

The American Geriatrics Society recommends that older adults use non-drug treatment options for their insomnia before moving on to a prescription drug. This is because sleeping pills can have serious side effects and may cause memory problems and confusion. The use of sleeping medication also increases the likelihood that an older adult will experience a fall or be involved in an automobile accident.

Alcohol Use

Alcohol abuse among the elderly is a widely hidden problem. It is believed that about 10% of the U.S. population abuses alcohol, but recent surveys have revealed that as many as 17% of the population of adults over the age of 65 have an alcohol abuse issue. Research from the University of Kentucky indicated that 2.5 million older adults have an alcohol-related problem.

Older alcohol abusers can be divided into two main categories. First there are the hardy survivors, which include seniors who have been abusing alcohol for many years prior to reaching their senior citizen status. The other group consists of late onset alcoholics that began abusing alcohol later in life due to life changes, including the death of a loved one, retirement, health concerns, or medical problems.

Older adults tend to be more sensitive to the negative effects of alcohol than younger individuals. This is generally due to their poorer health status and the greater chance that they may be taking medicationsthat could negatively interact with alcohol. Additionally, as part of the normal aging process, certain bodily changes can exacerbate the potential of harm when drinking, such as increased fat content impacting the body's ability to metabolize and absorb alcohol. Dehydration in the elderly is a common side effect of alcohol use among older adults, and other symptoms to look for can include loss of coordination, changes in eating habits, failure to maintain personal hygiene, difficulty staying in touch with friends and family, and lack of interest in usual activities.

- Written By

Anastasia Hobbs

Elder Care Expert
With over 20 years of experience in the eldercare industry, Anastasia Hobbs is a true elder care expert. Anastasia is passionate about providing compassionate care for elderly individuals and helping them stay independent.