Six Things You Should Know About Seniors and Substance Abuse


As the baby boomer generation ages, health officials are looking ahead, preparing for their most significant challenges. Certainly there are many health issues that we know seniors face, but many will also face other issues we may not have expected, like substance abuse and addiction. No, seniors have not been immune to the recent increase in abuse of prescription medications; if you know someone approaching or over sixty years old, there’s a good chance they’ve been prescribed a medication that can be habit forming. Here are six things to keep in mind as you add a few extra candles to grandma’s, or your own, birthday cake:


  1. Seniors take one out of every three prescriptions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, seniors are given thirty percent of all prescriptions in the United States, making them the demographic most likely to legally use prescription drugs. That’s a high percentage of drug use, given that seniors make up only 13% of the total American population.


  1. More seniors are at risk than ever before. Adults over sixty are positioned to be the fastest growing subset of the population regularly prescribed opioid-based medications, sleep aids, anti-anxiety meds and other substances that can be easily abused or have dangerous complications when mixed. Because drug use has historically been more common among baby boomers than past generations, they are at a greater risk of underestimating the potential harm inherent in abusing prescription medications.


  1. Mixing prescriptions can be deadly. Many seniors accustomed to taking a prescription medication two or more times each day don’t hesitate to take additional over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and supplements as needed. When taken in conjunction with prescription drugs, OTC medications can have damaging interactions and can even make a senior more likely to fall and injure themselves. The same is true of alcohol, which when used with certain prescription medications, can lead to suppressed respiration and in many cases, death.


  1. Old habits can get in the way. Two of the most commonly abused substances among adults over sixty are alcohol and tobacco. As much as a cigarette or a quick drink to relax might be a cherished ritual for the senior you know, they must understand that mixing anything with prescriptions increases one’s risk of accidental overdose. Also, as we age, the liver metabolizes alcohol less efficiently, meaning that smaller amounts of alcohol have more impact as we get older.


  1. There are warning signs. Learn to recognize the early signs of medication abuse or misuse to protect your loved ones. Increased confusion, changes in blood pressure, fatigue and falls can all be signals that something is not right. Do not write these symptoms off as old age problems or age-related dementia. These same symptoms can also mean that your loved one is taking his/her medication incorrectly and needs help.


  1. All changes require adjustment. Adapting your lifestyle as you age takes time and patience. Some seniors who begin abusing their prescription medications do so out of boredom in an effort to fill time once spent with family or at a demanding job. Help your loved one to remain active. Can s/he garden or join in the activities at a senior center? Is travel an option? Golf? Exercise? Volunteer work? Visit your aging loved ones as often as you can and keep your face out of your phone while you are there. Remember, someday, all you’ll have are memories.