How to Deal with Prescription Medication Addiction in the Elderly?


It might be surprising and quite unexpected, but prescription addiction is a significant problem among seniors. According to the federal substance abuse and mental services Administration, the number of seniors in the age of 50+ who requested help for substance abuse in 2008 was 231,200. When you compare this with the 1992 figures of only 102,700 people, there is no doubt that the rate is alarmingly increasing and something needs to be done sooner than later. Bearing in mind that these numbers only account for those people who have sought out treatment excluding those that are addicted but still in denial back at home. There is a high possibility that the biggest number comprises the excluded.

Dr. Marvin Tark, a board-certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, explicates that addiction is, in fact, a genetic trait. Well, while this may be debatable, he argues that prescription drug addiction is no different from alcoholism or any addiction for that matter. If a person has a history of alcoholism or substance abuse, there is a higher chance that they will abuse prescription medication, Says Dr. Tark. The aging population of Baby Boomers also has a higher probability of abusing prescription drugs compared to other elderly segments of the population. In this article, we are going to extensively look at prescription drug abuse among seniors. What causes the addiction, the effects and how to deal with the addiction.


How do the elderly get addicted to prescribed medication?

Most of the elderly take many prescription medications to improve their lives, from lowering blood pressure, maintaining their blood sugar to easing chronic pain. All these can be too much for one person to start with, it’s no wonder the addiction kicks in. Addiction to prescribed medicine by elderly people can happen in different ways.

As a way to get pain relief from chronic pain, some elderly have been continually taking painkillers for longer periods than recommended. Most of these high-grade pain relievers can be addictive. And since some of these conditions are lifetime illnesses, it means one will be on these pain relievers for some 5, 10 or 20 years. This is more than enough time to get one hooked. Once they get addicted they become less inclined to change to newer medications to treat their pain instead they increase the dosage.

Seniors with chronic illnesses such as arthritis tend to experience very intense pain accompanied by anxiety, and sleep disorders. Treatment for such conditions often comprises complex drug therapies that may require the use of multiple prescriptions taken for long periods. Given their age, it may become challenging to remember which drugs to take at what time and in what dosages. Often times this confusion may mean some drugs are taken in higher doses than required leading to an overdose and eventually addiction. Hearing problems, poor memory, and poor vision, all of which are common with aging, may also make it difficult to read or understand medication instructions. The senior ends up mixing up their doses and medications. While this may be unintentional, it eventually leads to intentional abuse and dependency, and ultimately addiction.

Mental health issues associated with aging can also lead to prescription medication abuse. The elderly, with serious health problems, more often than not experience changes in their physical, social and cognitive life that may cause them to turn to medications to cope. An estimated 14 percent of adults ages 50 and older have a mental illness, such as depression and anxiety. This depression if left untreated can lead to substance use and abuse. This situation is made worse by the fact that drugs used to treat adults with anxiety, depression, or insomnia can also be addictive.

But on the other hand, some elderly may be addicted to their medication because their medical condition warrants aggressive, routine treatments. Patients who have terminal medical conditions or in constant severe pain are sometimes denied pain medications because of fear of possible addiction. Caregivers should, therefore, be on a constant lookout for the red flags to avoid their loved ones from crossing the line with their medications.


Signs of prescription drug addiction in the elderly

Although it may be difficult to distinguish between signs of prescribed drugs abuse and changes associated with aging, it is important to keep a lookout for the following signs:

  • More pill bottles than the usual number
  • Unexplained missing medication
  • Sudden social isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Disorientation
  • Memory loss
  • Self-care neglect
  • Trials to obtain more drugs through regularly changing doctors or pharmacies
  • Changes in mobility such as poor balance
  • Sudden seizures
  • Changes in mood, sleep habits
  • Poor nutrition
  • Sudden unexplained aggressiveness


Effects of prescription drug addiction in the elderly

The elderly are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of prescription medication addiction than any other age group. Addiction to prescribed medication can lead to rapid deterioration of health or even prove to be fatal. Through addiction, the elderly are at a higher risk of developing illnesses like:

  • Osteoporosis,
  • Ulcers,
  • Liver damage,
  • Diabetes II,
  • Varicose veins,
  • Conditions of the small or large intestine,
  • Chronic bladder inflammation.

These are not to be underestimated, as they can progress swiftly at this age. In particular, irritable colon and bladder inflammation have been linked to colon cancer in persons over 60.


Prevention of prescription drug addiction in the elderly

Since seniors do not fit the stereotypical picture of a drug abuser, it is almost impossible to suspect any addiction. This makes gaining access to addictive medications even easier for the elderly. In trying to prevent cases of prescription medication addiction the following measures can, therefore, be applied;

  • Check to ensure they are following the prescribed dosage
  • Monitor how they take their medication
  • Monitor and supervise their access to the medication
  • Encourage alternative ways of dealing with their conditions
  • Keep away medication that they no longer use or need
  • Stay connected and know what medications your loved one is taking and why
  • Accompany them to some of their check-ups and talk to their doctors


Treatment of prescription drug addiction in the elderly

The elderly may not recognize the need for addiction treatment, which makes it vital for their loved ones to intervene before it is too late. This will require a lot of patience and planning for the intervention to succeed. Once the senior has agreed to begin treatment, the help of a trained addiction professional is beneficial. Treatment options may vary depending on the level of care required. Here are some of the available treatment options:

  • Medical detox. This is the removal of drugs from an individual who is dependent on the drug and who may suffer both drug cravings and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms when the medications are removed. Medical conditions and mental health concerns of the patient are carefully evaluated before dispensing medications during detox. Health professionals treating the elderly need to be aware of all the medications a person may be taking to manage other health concerns to avert any negative interactions.
  • Residential or outpatient treatment. The residential and outpatient treatment models have similar components, which include therapy, group, and individual counseling, 12-step, and mutual support group meetings, education opportunities, holistic treatment methods, and life skills training workshops. With outpatient treatment models, patients attend sessions during the day and return to their residences at night. On the other hand, residential treatment means patients stay on-site at a specialized treatment facility and receive care and supervision around the clock.
  • Recovery support and relapse prevention. Support groups are often an essential part of an addiction treatment program and may be especially helpful after a more intensive treatment plan, or a stay in a residential program has ended. Relapse, which can be defined as the return to drug-abusing, behavior and may be particularly dangerous for the elderly population, as the risk for a fatal overdose may be high during a relapse. People in an elderly’s community, friends and also family members can all be important parts of a healthy support system that will enhance addiction treatment and promote long-term recovery.
  • Family communication. Communication should be as clear and simple as possible, taking into account age-related brain changes, both normal and abnormal. Patience and restraint need to be employed because elderly patients are very defensive and set in their ways. One must recognize this is normal and not give up. This is why objective information about the dangers of prescription drug use can be helpful.



Prescription addiction in the elderly in most cases is not intentional. Elderly individuals are likely not abusing drugs to get high, but rather may be using them to reduce physical pain or emotional difficulties. They are probably using drugs to cope with the mental and physical challenges that come with the aging process, chronic pain, desire to gain their independence or loss of a loved one.

Some of the prescribed medications the elderly may take as a means of dealing with these issues are mind-altering and potentially addictive substances that, when taken for a long time, create a dependency that can morph into addiction very easily. The good news is that, when caught early,  addiction to prescribed medication is manageable and treatable, regardless of a person’s age. There are many addiction treatment options open to older individual and full recovery is a possibility. As the population of older adults continues to grow, a better understanding of the issues that they confront is crucial. The surge in prescribed medication addiction issues among the elderly underscores the need for family members to stay in close contact with their aging loved ones and carefully monitor their medication usage. By doing so, you can keep them safe and healthy well into their golden years.

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