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Elderly Drug Addiction and Treatment

luxury-shutter168042626-old-man-prescriptionWith age comes experience and wisdom, but it can also make admitting that you have an addiction to prescription or illicit drugs more difficult. If you’re a senior with a drug abuse problem, or if you suspect that an elderly person in your life is using drugs in a harmful way, recognizing the symptoms can be the first step toward recovery.

The changes that come with aging can often encourage drug addiction. Chronic illness, changes in your body’s metabolism, depression, and loss of mobility and dexterity can all result in a dependence upon illegal and prescription drugs to ease physical and psychological pain. The fact is that even physicians are often under-informed about drug abuse and addiction in the elderly. As a result, the risk of the elderly population obtaining and misusing prescription drugs, or abusing illicit drugs without detection, grows.

A Startling Trend

As more and more drugs become available to treat the aches, pains and other maladies that accompany aging, the number of elderly taking prescription drugs continues to rise, with many older adults being prescribed more than one mood-altering or pain-relieving drug. The abuse of recreational drugs in the elderly is also a concern, as addiction does not discriminate – older people are just as susceptible to drug abuse as younger persons are.

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A 2009 report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that approximately 4.3 million American adults over the age of 50 – 4.7 percent of adults in that age range — had used an illegal drug, or used a prescription drug in a non-medical situation in the past year. The aging of the American population means that drug addiction in the elderly, and the need for treatment will only increase in the coming years. The JohnsHopkinsHealthAlertcites a recent study projecting that the number of people over the age 50 who abuse prescription drugs could rise 190 percent over the next 20 years, and reach nearly 2.7 million by 2020.

Increased Exposure

If you have an addiction to prescription drugs, you likely never intended to abuse drugs. But if you’re an elderly person, access to prescription drugs with the potential for addiction is increased. According to JohnsHopkinsMedicine, Americans who are 65 and older consume approximately one-third of all prescription drugs dispensed in the country; however, this age group makes up only 13 percent of the population.

While access to drugs certainly plays a prominent role in addiction, the problem is compounded for older individuals as they often take more medications with the potential for addiction than any other age group. In fact, elderly patients are more often prescribed benzodiazepams (tranquilizers) and opiods (painkillers) than any other age group. According to the UniversityofPennsylvaniaHealthSystem, almost 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are written for elderly patients on a yearly basis.

Are You Misusing Prescription Drugs?

If you or someone you love is engaging in these behaviors, he or she may be misusing prescription drugs:

  • Stealing, selling, or forging prescriptions in order to obtain prescription drugs
  • Attempting to get prescriptions from more than one doctor
  • “Losing” prescriptions, resulting in requests for additional prescriptions
  • Taking higher doses of prescription medications than prescribed
  • Exhibiting poor decision-making behavior
  • Appearing to be high, unusually energetic or excessively sedated

Increased Danger

While drug addiction is a frightening, dangerous and potentially deadly problem for people of any age, it’s especially risky for older adults.
The same decrease in metabolism that creates that spare tire you develop around your middle in your later years also means that your body metabolizes drugs more slowly. And, as you age, your liver becomes less effective at filtering medications out of your body. These two age-related physiological changes mean that you have a greater risk of becoming addicted to drugs or suffering dangerous side effects than you did when you were younger.

If you take multiple medications – and if you’re an elderly adult, you likely do – you know that your doctor likely juggles drug interactions and side effects in order to provide you with the care you need without creating more dangerous health problems. When you misuse a prescription drug, or mix prescription drugs with illicit drugs, that delicate balancing act is thrown out of order, resulting in unexpected side effects or substance interactions.

A Hidden Problem

The very factors that can result in drug addiction in older adults can also make detecting a drug abuse problem or drug addiction difficult. Being isolated from friends and loved ones, relying on several different doctors to treat different medical conditions, and age-related physiological changes can all create the potential for drug abuse, while also hiding the problem.

Relatives, friends, caretakers and health professionals may fail to recognize drug addiction in elderly adults, either because they do not think of drug abuse or addiction as a problem common in older years, or because they mistake the symptoms for common signs of aging.

Signs of Drug Addiction in the Elderly That Are Often Overlooked

Signs of drug addiction that are easily identified in younger persons can often be overlooked in older adults as normal symptoms of aging. UniversityofPennsylvaniaHealthSystem advises that the sudden appearance of the following symptoms in an older adult can indicate drug addiction:

  • Occasional garbled speech
  • Diminished appetite and/or unexplained weight loss
  • Disheveled appearance and/or poor personal hygiene
  • Complaints of trouble sleeping
  • Repeated health complaints without indication of medical issues
  • Touchiness

  • Inexplicable bruises
  • Blackouts
  • Amplified absentmindedness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Sadness, apprehension and mental health problems
  • Hiding pills or lying about drug use
  • Distress or awkwardness when confronted about drug use behaviors

Drug Rehabilitation for the Elderly

If you or an older adult you know is in the grips of drug addiction, there is hope and help. The first step, however, is admitting you need help. Then, it’s a matter of finding the rehabilitation and treatment program that is right for you.

Any discussion of a drug rehabilitation program may begin between you and your primary care physician or other health care provider. Your primary health care provider can help integrate your treatment with your other health care needs, assuring that you stay healthy and on the medications you need while receiving care for your addiction.

For many older adults, the fear of admitting to a drug addiction is the first barrier that must be overcome when seeking help. It’s natural to feel ashamed or embarrassed about your addiction, but realizing that addiction is a disease, just like any other, can help you feel more at ease when discussing your treatment options.

Another fear that many elderly addicts face is the thought of entering an inpatient treatment facility. Inpatient facilities are often the most effective means of treatment for elderly patients as they allow complete medical supervision around the clock. They also allow patients to wholly focus on their addiction issues, enabling them to make the most progress possible in treatment.

What to Look for in Inpatient Drug Rehabilitation for Seniors:

Inpatient drug rehabilitation programs are often recommended for drug addiction treatment. However, not all of these programs may be the best fit for elderly patients. When treating older adults, the U.S. DepartmentofHealthandHumanServicesrecommends residential treatment centers that:

  • When possible, treat older adults in age-specific programs.
  • Maintain a flexible program that adjusts according to clients’ needs.

  • Employ a whole-body approach that treats mental, physical, emotional and social issues.
  • Show respect for older patients.

A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that most elderly adults prefer to receive substance abuse treatment such as drug rehabilitation as part of their primary health care directives, as they preferred receiving treatment close to home. If you’re considering drug rehabilitation, but are concerned about leaving your home or community, be aware that there may be inpatient programs that allow you to receive treatment while still remaining in your community. There may also be outpatient programs in your area that allow you to still live at home. If you contact us, we can help you find a treatment facility that specializes in elderly patients.

There is good news about drug addiction and elderly adults. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, older adults often respond better to treatment for substance abuse than younger adults. For these elderly patients, the result may be better physical and mental health and reduced instance of illness and disability.