Today’s seniors are drastically different from those of generations past. They’re living longer, more active, and independent lives (older adults are projected to account for 57% of labor force growth between 2022 and 2032) [4]. They’re also struggling with alarming rates of drug abuse and addiction. [3]

What was once considered a problem for younger generations has become a crisis among senior citizens.  

Substance use in the elderly is likely to cause mental, physical, and social problems that negatively affect the quality of life for this new wave of seniors and can make it even more challenging for caregivers to provide proper care. It’s also a rising public health concern because it poses a significant strain on an already struggling healthcare system and its providers. 

Elderly Addiction Statistics

Addiction rates among American seniors aged 65 years and older are relatively low, with only about 4% having a substance abuse issue[1]. That’s just the current situation, however. What these statistics fail to capture is the silver tsunami of Baby Boomers hitting retirement age, the last of which will be doing so by 2035, and are bringing with them many undiagnosed or untreated substance abuse issues. 

  • Nearly 1 million Americans 65 and older have a substance use disorder [6]
  • Medicare beneficiaries with substance use disorders were more than twice as likely to have had serious psychological distress the previous year compared to those without substance use disorders [2]
  • Fatal overdose rates for seniors have quadrupled between 2002 and 2021, with overdoses accounting for 1 in 370 deaths of Americans 65 and older. 57% involved an opioid, 39% involved a stimulant, and 18% involved both substances. [2]
  • The drug most commonly abused by seniors is alcohol (11%) [1]
  • Only 18% of substance abuse treatment programs are designed for seniors [1]
  • Top reasons for not receiving treatment: Lack of motivation (41%), financial barriers (33%), concern about what others might think (24%), logistical barriers such as lack of transportation (21%), and uncertainty about treatment efficacy (13%). [2]

What’s causing the surge in addiction rates among seniors?

There are two key drivers of addiction in elderly populations: generation 

One is that the aging Baby Boomer cohort was born between the 1940s and 1960s. They came of age between the swingin’ ‘60s and wild ’80s — a period of resistance, rebellion, and lots of partying.​​ Growing up with greater exposure and access to casual drug use, it’s unsurprising that Baby Boomers take more drugs than their parents, the Silent Generation, who grew up in the prosperous but very conservative years following World World II. 

However, illicit drugs only account for a small portion of elderly drug abuse. The main source of addiction among seniors is prescription drugs such as painkillers or sedatives. About half of all Medicare enrollees over 65 take four or more prescriptions a day. Pair this with the above and you’ve got a dangerous recipe for accidental (or sometimes intentional) drug interactions. 

Treating Senior Substance Abuse 

Helping seniors struggling with substance abuse can be challenging. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of addiction in seniors can be particularly challenging. Symptoms of substance abuse like slip and fall accidents, cognitive decline, heart and liver disease, kidney failure, or cancer, can often be mistaken for age-related cognitive or physical decline.

Urgency is important once detected as senior substance abuse can quickly become fatal. Nearly three-quarters of unintentional suicides involved illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, other synthetic opioids, and methamphetamine. On the contrary, prescription drugs such as opioid analgesics (painkillers), antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antiepileptics, and sedatives were found to be the most common cause of intentional suicide.

While there are multiple treatment options for older people dealing with substance abuse, there hasn’t been enough research conducted on treating seniors specifically. It’s unknown how drug use affects the older brain or whether some treatment methods are more effective than others for the elderly. What has been determined, however, is that older adults respond positively to longer-term care. Treatment will likely require extra consideration for co-occurring medical ailments and potential drug interactions with prescription medications. 

Find treatment options, support, and resources available to seniors in need in this free drug rehab center directory.