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Seniors and Addiction: The Silent Epidemic

PUBLISHED ON: 06.26.2018

Under-Diagnosed Addiction and Substance Use

When looking at who is affected by addiction, those age 65 and up are the group most often under-diagnosed. According to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, seniors battling addiction can be categorized into those who have a long withstanding dependency – and those who developed an addiction at this stage in life, typically as a result of health-related issues or life-changing events (loss of a loved one, retirement, financial strains, etc.).

Cultural / Generational Bias

When conducting health screenings among seniors, symptoms of addiction or drug dependency may be overlooked because they often mimic other common issues among that population, such as depression, diabetes or Alzheimer’s.

There is arguably a cultural bias that alcoholism or addiction should be ignored among this population by their adult children, who unconsciously assign different quality-of-life standards to the elderly.

Research notes that remarks such as, “Grandmother’s cocktails are the only thing that makes her happy,” or “What difference does it make; he won’t be around much longer anyway”, are reflections of this attitude – thus ignoring that the elderly are far more susceptible to health deterioration caused by substance abuse when compared to other populations.

Senior Addiction Facts & Figures

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD):

  • There are 2.5 million older adults with an alcohol or drug problem
  • 6% – 11% of elderly hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems
  • 14 percent of elderly emergency room admissions and 20 percent of elderly psychiatric hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems
  • Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.
  • Nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems
  • Older adults are hospitalized as often for alcohol-related problems as for heart attacks
  • Nearly 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are prescribed for older adults each year
  • Benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizing drug, are the most commonly misused and abused prescription medications among the elderly

How Do We Improve?

Many in this age group consider addiction or substance misuse to be a private matter and often will not seek treatment due to the stigma attached. In this case, it may be up to the adult children to step in and intervene.

For those that have been struggling with addiction for some time, family members or care givers should recommend addiction support groups where friendship and fellowship can help guide them toward solutions. After dispelling any cultural bias about seniors and addiction, younger family members may also want to advise seniors who are dealing with substance abuse to pursue rehab treatment.

Seniors may not be aware that there is a risk of addiction associated with certain prescriptions, meaning providers should make sure patients are well informed about their effects and the dangers of mixing alcohol with certain drugs.

Broader Shifts in Perspective

As a culture, we can shift our perspectives to value and respect the elderly more: to recognize that the quality of seniors’ lives is important, no matter how long they have left to live.

We can also recognize that alcoholism and addiction weren’t taken seriously in older generations. Previous generations had less tools and resources to manage mental health and emotional concerns, and it was both common and accepted that feelings and traumas would be “dealt with” by drinking, taking pills and other forms of numbing.

Consider the “mother’s little helpers” pills of the 1960s. While today, women falling into this category would be encouraged to seek counseling and other more holistic tools to manage anxiety, stress and trauma; at that time it was perfectly acceptable to simply numb their feelings with pills.

It could be argued that the current opioid epidemic has in part flourished because of our society’s overall acceptance of – and dependence on – pills, and that the seeds were obviously planted decades ago.

Additionally, men coming home from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War had little to no resources available to deal with the trauma and horrors that they experienced. Many of these vets simply drank – or in the case of Vietnam, continued using the heroin they’d experienced overseas – to self-medicate their PTSD.

There are entire generations of our elderly who weren’t given cultural permission to validate – much less treat – pain and trauma that we would take very seriously today. By recognizing this, we can help the elderly both acknowledge their mental health needs (past and present) and help them access sustainable tools to address them.


National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence 

Alcohol Abus Among Seniors

Senior Citizens and Substance Abuse

Leigh-Ann Renz

Leigh-Ann Renz

Leigh-Ann Renz is the Marketing & Business Development Director of PIMSY EHR. For more information about electronic solutions for your practice, check out Mental Health EHR.

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