High Number of Senior Adults Struggling with Prescription Drug Addiction

Senior adults in the United States have a new issue to contend with:
fast growing rates of painkiller addiction, according to U.S. News & World Report. Unlike other populations where the signs of addiction are easily recognized by family members and medical professionals, older patients who are struggling with painkiller addiction often go unnoticed.Why aren’t loved ones and caregivers seeing the signs of painkiller abuse and addiction among seniors? There are numerous reasons why the issue gets overlooked, including:
  • Doctors often do not ask the “right” questions during appointments
  • Loved ones assume that depression related to addictive use of painkillers and/or falls that occur while under the influence are simply normal signs of aging
  • Loved ones and doctors may assume that any signs of confusion or drowsiness are normal side effects of the medication

In addition, interactions between alcohol and painkillers can increase the effects of painkillers and increase the likelihood of addiction. Many patients may not know that they should limit or stop drinking while taking the medication.

Confusion, depression, and falls are not normal for older people. These issues could be indicative of an addiction disorder. Is someone you love living with an addiction to painkillers?

Higher Rates of ER Visits among Older Adults

senior adults struggling with drug addictionIf so many senior adults with painkiller addiction are slipping through the cracks when it comes to diagnosis and treatment, how do we know that there is a large and growing problem? The results of a study recently presented at the Gerontological Society of America found that between 2006 and 2012, the number of older adults who were admitted to emergency rooms due to misuse or abuse of prescription or illicit drugs increased by 78 percent. Of this number, an estimated 11 percent were due to misuse of prescription painkillers. The data from about 71,000 senior adults was included in the study; more than half of the patients were between the ages of 65 and 74, which means that almost half were age 75 and older.

Older Adults and Painkillers

There are a number of reasons why older adults may abuse painkillers and develop addictions. For most, it is the same issue that causes many Americans to become physically and psychologically dependent upon opiate medications: They take the meds to treat chronic pain. Pain can be severe, especially after an injury or due to long-term illness, and older adults may have doctors handing them potent scripts with the goal of helping to ease their pain without thinking they may be putting them at risk for addiction.

The Risks of Painkiller Addiction in Older Adults

  • Increased falls and fractures
  • Negative interaction with other medications
  • Increased effect when mixed with alcohol
  • Increased unsafe driving behaviors while under the influence
  • Risk of overdose and sudden death

Many of these issues are the same risks that anyone who is living with an active dependence upon painkillers will face – all of them damaging to the person’s quality of life and life-threatening as well.

Obstacles to Treatment

There are some difficulties that many family members face in attempting to help a parent or other senior family member see that they have a drug addiction problem and agree to get help. First, many simply refuse to acknowledge it. To many older adults in this situation, they believe that they are taking their pain reliever as prescribed and may be overwhelmed by the idea of choosing to stop taking their medication especially if it means living in pain – an understandable issue.

Also, the stigma of addiction can be a problem as well. If older individuals view anyone living with an addiction as weak of will or without moral fiber – a commonly held belief in decades past – they may not take kindly to the suggestion that they are struggling with an addiction disorder. After a lifetime in the workforce, raising children, and living productive lives, they may believe that to identify any issues they have with their medication is not only incorrect but also insulting.


In light of these commonly held perceptions among senior adults, many family members back away from the situation. Unfortunately, this choice compromises the quality of life of the individual and may contribute to shortening lifespan as well. Though it may be difficult to broach the topic of addiction treatment, here are a few tips to help you connect older loved ones with the care necessary to heal:

  • Reminding your loved one that addiction is a medical disorder with nothing to do with willpower is a priority. Make it clear that long-term use of any addictive medication can cause changes in the brain that are beyond the person’s control
  • If it’s not clear, emphasize that any physical and/or psychological dependence to medication is not their fault.
  • Point out that they are not alone, that there are many others who are also struggling with addiction to pain medication
  • Let them know the specifics about some of the treatment services available that are geared specifically toward helping older people to learn how to manage chronic pain more healthfully and stop using addictive drugs.
  • Remind them of the risks of continuing addictive use of pain medication and point out any near-misses or accidents that have occurred already due to the problem
  • Tell them that you will be with them throughout the process of recovery and in support of them every step of the way

Addiction is scary when it happens to those who did not even realize that they were at risk for the problem. Older adults, despite their wisdom and experience, are not immune from the fear often associated with beginning drug addiction treatment. If your loved one is struggling with drug dependence, educate yourself on the nature of the problem as well as the solution. There is hope through treatment.

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