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Drug and alcohol abuse is generally thought of as a problem for teens and young adults, but it can affect older adults as well. In fact, substance abuse among seniors is a rapidly growing health problem in the United States. Sadly, it’s often overlooked in people 65 and over, preventing them from getting the treatment they need.

Older adults who have drug or alcohol problems can be divided into two groups, according to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

  • Hardy survivors. Seniors in this group have been abusing drugs or alcohol for many years.
  • Late onsetters. Elders in this group develop an addiction later in life.

What Causes Addiction in Older Adults?

Addiction is a complex disease. People may experiment with drugs because they are curious but they continue using them for other reasons. For example, a teen who suffered trauma in her childhood is more likely to abuse drugs to deal with the pain. An older adult, however, will have different motivations for using drugs. Here are a few examples.

  • Retirement
  • Death of a family member
  • Loss of income
  • Relocation
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Family problems
  • Depression
  • Memory loss

Prevalence of Prescription Drug Abuse

Another thing that can lead to addiction in seniors is the misuse of prescription medications. Most older adults do this by accident because they are taking a large number of prescriptions. The drugs of most concern include:

  • Opioids. Opioids are used to control pain. They are habit forming, especially when used for extended periods of time. Opioids include hydrocodone, oxycontin and codeine.
  • Benzodiazepines. Benzos are prescribed for insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks. These drugs are addictive and should only be used short term. Examples include Xanax, Valium or Klonopin.

Recognizing the Signs of Addiction

It can be difficult to recognize the signs of addiction in an older adult. Not only are loved ones and doctors not suspecting it, but also some symptoms mimic conditions like depression or dementia. For example, memory loss and confusion are more common with advanced age. If you notice that Mom is forgetful or Dad has a hard time tracking a conversation, you might shrug it off as normal. However it could be that they are misusing their medications and becoming addicted.

Awareness is important, as addiction doesn’t discriminate. If someone you love is abusing prescription drugs, here are the signs to watch for.

  • Doctor shopping
  • Using different pharmacies
  • Taking more medicine than instructed
  • Taking medicines at different times
  • Becoming angry or withdrawn
  • Showing confusion or forgetfulness
  • Being obsessive with their medicine

Anything that seems out of the ordinary should be brought to the attention of your loved one’s doctor. Tell the doctor your concerns, and he or she will evaluate your parent to determine if prescription drug abuse is the reason. Treatment is available and can be very successful for older adults.