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Treatment Options for Older Generations

Table of Contents

Many believe that drug abuse primarily affects teenagers and young adults, but various age groups can develop substance use disorders, including those in the older generations.

Like any demographic, older individuals need treatment that addresses issues that are unique to their age group. This may mean more comprehensive medical services as well as therapy that deals with social issues that are pertinent to their stage of life.

Substance Abuse in the Older Generation

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the baby boomer generation has used more drugs over the years than other generations. An increase in the availability of psychotherapeutic treatments and a lack of screening for drug use may also contribute to drug misuse in this specific age group.

U.S. News & World Report stated in 2018 that new guidelines outlined that people over age 65 should not drink more than seven drinks per week, but up to 15 percent of older citizens surpass this limit.

Issues With Detecting Substance Abuse In Older People

For this guide, we define older people as citizens who are age 65 or older.

A 2011 case study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment estimates that 4.4 million older adults will require treatment for substance misuse by 2020.

A few challenges to detecting substance abuse in older generations include:

  • Lack of screening. Specialists and primary care physicians do not routinely screen older citizens for possible substance use disorders (SUD). As a result, many addictions go undetected.
  • Declining function. Substance abuse can often be mistaken for a drop in physical and cognitive abilities associated with aging. Again, this causes substance abuse in this age group to go unnoticed.
  • Multiple prescriptions. Many senior citizens are prescribed multiple medications. It can be challenging to manage the various potential side effects, and doctors may not detect problems with misuse as a result.

Substance Abuse Among the Older People

The good news is that substance use disorders decrease as people move into different age groups, as reported in a May 2017 issue of The CBHSQ Report.

Again, baby boomers are more likely to have experimented with drugs at a younger age. Older citizens are more likely to use prescription medications and live with chronic health issues.

Per the report:

  • Up to 772,000 of adults over age 65 reported heavy drinking
  • Up to 469,000 older individuals used an unlawful substance
  • About 132,000 older citizens used marijuana
  • Approximately 4,300 used cocaine

In 2011, more than 750,000 people over age 65 visited the emergency room. Of these visits,  close to 106,000 were related to unlawful substances.  

Alcohol use can be especially dangerous for people over age 65.

  • Binge drinking consists of two or more drinks for women and three or more drinks for men.
  • Alcohol can cause a person to lose their balance. Injuries for older citizens can be worse than for younger people.
  • Many seniors rely on over-the-counter medications, herbal supplements, and prescription medication, all of which could interact with alcohol.
  • People lose tolerance for alcohol as they age. If older people drank the same amount they could when they were younger, it could result in serious problems.

Specific Substances of Abuse

An August 2015 report published on Clinics in Geriatric Medicine also mentions risks associated with opioids and benzodiazepines.

  • Seniors metabolize opioids and benzodiazepines more slowly than younger adults. Benzodiazepines are said to cause higher tranquilizing effects in older folks.
  • Older adults may commonly see more than one doctor, which increases the likelihood that they will receive prescriptions that interact with the other.
  • Seniors are likely to confuse pills or take someone else’s prescription if they run out of their own.

Marijuana use can also cause problems for the older generations, including:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure

People over age 65 are four times more likely to suffer from a heart attack within an hour of smoking marijuana.

Common Signs of Drug Use in Older People

A few common signs of drug use among the older generations include:

  • Recent falls or injuries
  • Financial, legal, and family problems
  • Blackouts
  • Increased tolerance to medication
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Seeking more medication or medical supplies

If a senior in your life has recently lost a spouse or partner, pay close attention to the presence of any of these other signs. Loss of a loved one can often be a trigger for substance abuse in this demographic.

Risk Factors for Developing a Substance Use Disorder 

Most people age 65 or older will not develop a substance use disorder as a result of retirement or other changes in life.

The following risk factors increase the likelihood of substance abuse in this demographic:

  • Caucasian males
  • Decreased mobility
  • Chronic pain and illness
  • Using various prescriptions at the same time
  • Having a past substance abuse disorder
  • A history of alcohol misuse
  • Living alone
  • A good financial status

Males over 65 are more likely to misuse alcohol, while women are more likely to misuse prescription medication.

Approaching Your Loved One

Sometimes, older people have decreased social networks. Retirement means they perhaps are no longer engaging in any work-related activities. They may have fewer people around to help them recognize issues with substance misuse.

If you suspect an older individual in your life may be abusing drugs or alcohol, consider talking to them individually.

With preparation, even a gentle intervention can help someone examine their behavior. Try the following:

  • Choose a comfortable time to speak
  • Do not use labels that carry a lot of stigmas, such as alcoholic or addict
  • Make sure person you are speaking with knows you respect and love them
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Share objective concerns
  • Do your research and discuss possible treatment options. Ideally, look for treatment options that cater to people in their age demographic.

Treatment Needs for Older Folks

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that seniors may feel uncomfortable attending treatment facilities where they will be expected to interact with younger clients.

Older clients may feel more stigma about their substance misuse because of their upbringing. Even though data shows that programs created for younger people can be effective in treating substance use disorders for the aged, older clients may feel more comfortable in a program with other people their age.

Seniors who seek addiction treatment may need certain modifications, such as:

Lodging that accommodates disabilities: 65 and older clientele may need facilities that are accessible for wheelchairs and other disabilities.

More comprehensive medical care: Many seniors developed a substance use disorder before turning 40, and may have developed health issues as a result. Combined with their advanced age, their medical issues related to drug use may be more complex.

Medication management. Since the older generations are likely to use multiple prescription medications, they may require more comprehensive medication management during detox and ongoing recovery. This may also include pain management.

Social support. Some older people are more likely to have lost a partner and friends. Since many seniors are retired, they may have less access to social networks. Treatment for this demographic should focus on building a robust network of support. Support groups that address issues unique to this age group can help.

Paying for Treatment

Many addiction treatment programs accept Medicare or Medicaid, making it easier for older adults to seek treatment. Confirm with a prospective facility if they accept this form of insurance prior to enrolling. If you or your loved one have a secondary form of insurance, ask the prospective treatment program if they accept it.

Many private treatment facilities offer payment plans and other options to help with the cost of treatment that insurance doesn’t cover. Most facilities want to make the financial aspect of treatment manageable for prospective clients.

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(April 2016) Substance Use Treatment for Older Adults. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved April 2019 from

(January 2011) Substance Abuse Treatment for Older Adults in Private Centers. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Retrieved April 2019 from

(January 2018) Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition): Are there specific drug addiction treatments for older adults? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved April 2019 from

(July 2018) The Do’s and Don’ts of Alcohol Intervention for Seniors. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved April 2019 from

(August 2015) Substance Abuse Among Older Adults. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine. Retrieved April 2019 from

(May 2017) A day in the life of older adults: Substance use facts. The CBHSQ Report: May 2017. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved April 2019 from

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