Little Known Demographic: Retired Adults Developing a Drug Addiction

Today’s baby boomers grew up in an era where recreational drugs and excessive alcohol were accepted as part of the social progressive culture of the 1960s and 1970s. However, even though most gave up this habit as they aged, today’s stressors of economic hardship, the reality of retiring, possible mental health issues and loneliness have some older adults reverting to these habits as they enter their golden years.

Known as an invisible epidemic, addiction and substance abuse in older adults is one the fastest growing public health concerns facing this generation today. Unlike younger adults who are confronted with the same issues, older individuals may not have the same type of support from their friends and family. Because of this, older adults may have a more difficult time transitioning into post-rehab life.


About 17 percent of older adults (ages 50 and older) have misused alcohol and prescription drugs, but the symptoms are often missed by health care providers since they mimic other medical or behavioral disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depression and even diabetes. There is also the shame felt by older individuals and even their adult children who would rather choose to not address the situation than be embarrassed by seeking professional help for such a private matter.

There are said to be two types of elderly substance abusers. The hardy survivors are those who have managed to live somewhat normal lives even though they have abused drugs or alcohol since they were younger. The late onset substance abusers are older adults who only started this behavior in recent years.

Causes of Drug Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults

 Substance and alcohol abuse knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if you are 25 or 80, misusing drugs and alcohol is a way of coping with a larger problem or situation that usually includes pain, depression, grief or anxiety.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to 30 percent of adults 75 to 85 years old have had drinking problems. This is coupled with 3.6 percent of adults ages 60 to 64 that have reportedly used illicit drugs.

As an older adult, you will face a number of specific challenges and changes as you enter your retirement years. This transitional period is arduous and can lead to having to deal with many stressful situations. The extreme stress can cause anxiety and depression, resulting in the misuse of drugs or alcohol. Some of these situations may include:

  • Forced early retirement: The country’s current economic crisis is causing some older adults to consider early retirement with some elderly employees retiring before they originally intended. Corporations and businesses may be forced to cut spending, and in many cases, elderly employees are the first to go because they typically have higher salaries and cost the company more money.

This is forcing early retirees to dip into their retirement savings before initially planned. Some even need to find an encore or second career to supplement their income to make ends meet. For many, this can be quite stressful, especially with the lack of jobs available in some areas for seniors.

  • Health care costs: Besides early retirement, another expense causing older adults unwanted anxiety and stress is the cost of health care. Even with Medicare, more than 75 percent of households with older adults spent about $10,000 out-of-pocket on health care, with the remaining 25 percent spending more than $100,000.


One-quarter of these participants also spent more than their total household assets on health care. Of course, as an older adult, you will have more medical costs based on your health needs and the type of chronic illnesses you may have, but without the funds to pay for the care, you may be left feeling stressed and depressed.

  • Recent bereavements: The death of a spouse or partner, family member, friend and even a pet can quickly lead to depression in an older adult. Unfortunately, as you age, you will experience many losses, and it is normal and healthy to grieve.

 Since grief has no timetable, though, it is important to watch for signs of depression that can easily result from the grief process. Moments of pleasure and happiness followed by sadness are normal when grieving, but constant feelings of despair and emptiness may be symptoms of a larger problem.

  • Failing or changing health: From illnesses and disabilities to cognitive decline and chronic pain, any major change in your health as an older adult can create anxiety or depression, causing you to seek relief through alcohol or drugs. Older adults may also feel a loss of control over their lives because of failing eyesight, loss of hearing and other physical challenges that can lead to negative emotions.
  • Loneliness and isolation: Adults today are living longer and having fewer children than in previous generations. Because of this, they are faced with being lonely and isolated in their golden years. The lack of family nearby can pose emotional and financial problems for seniors. If you or your loved one are faced with this challenge, it’s best to move where you will have support in the years ahead, such as a retirement community. Another option is to delay retirement or start a second career to keep your mind, body and spirit active and busy.
  • Many prescription drugs: It’s not only illicit drugs some seniors are abusing, but prescription medications as well. Seniors may take more than what is instructed, take it when it’s not needed or mix it with alcohol or other drugs. Besides addiction, this can lead to drug interactions and even overdoses. Remember that not all prescription medications cause addiction. Most are effective and safe when they are taken as followed by doctor’s orders.

Who Is at Risk?

 Not every senior citizen who is stressed, depressed or dealing with other issues in their lives will turn to drugs or alcohol. There are certain segments of the elderly community that are at risk for such behavior. For instance, older adults who tend to take many medications prescribed by more than one doctor are at risk of prescription drug abuse.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly three in every 10 adults between 57 and 85 use at least five prescriptions. Substance abuse is also more likely to occur among those who:

  • Are feeling socially isolated.
  • Are separated or divorced.
  • Abused drugs or alcohol when they were younger.
  • Experience a lot of boredom or down time.
  • Have a family history of drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Suffer from mental health issues.

 Types of Drugs That Lead to Addiction Among Seniors

 When older adults misuse a substance, alcohol is typically what they turn to first. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 5.5 million older adults have alcohol problems. This is mainly because alcohol is socially acceptable, easily accessible and can be very addictive. Changes in a senior’s body make it more sensitive to alcohol, and it may only take a few drinks to feel intoxicated or feed the addiction.

For women, moderate drinking is considered to be one drink per day, and for men, it’s about two drinks per day. However, more than that on a regular and consistent basis can cause:

  • Serious illness including liver and stomach problems
  • Impaired sleep
  • Falls and injuries
  • A decrease in overall quality of life
  • Interference with needed medications

When compared to alcohol, prescription drug abuse in older adults may not be as common, but it can ruin lives just as easily as excessive drinking. Medications that can cause addiction among seniors include:

  • Barbiturates: These sedatives are often prescribed to treat insomnia and are extremely effective in seniors since their bodies tend to break down and eliminate the drugs more slowly. These types of drugs are also distributed in the body fat that tends to increase with age. Once stored, the drugs are released gradually, delaying the medications’ The risk of addiction is great, and the drugs should not be taken for a prolonged period of time.
  • Morphine and other narcotics: These are powerful painkillers that can cause addiction, but the benefits, such as chronic pain relief, have been shown to outweigh the risks. These medications are not recommended for those with previous addictions, and because of the stigma associated with narcotic painkillers, many doctors still refuse to prescribe them.
  • Diazepam (Valium) and other sedatives: Diazepam and other sedatives like chlordiazepoxide are known as “long half-life drugs.” They are prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia and are supposed to work slowly and linger in the bloodstream. However, as in barbiturates, the drug can accumulate in body fat, potentially causing addiction.


Illegal drug addiction is also on the rise among the senior population with the following illicit drugs being misused alone or with other substances:

  • Hallucinogens
  • Injected narcotics
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Opioids
  • Heroin
  • Synthetic drugs

Health Consequences of Substance Abuse in Older Adults

 Besides the obvious health consequences that come with excessive drinking or drug abuse, there are many other risks associated with ingesting these substances. For alcoholics, cirrhosis of the liver is not the only health problem you need to be concerned with. Alcohol does all sorts of things to the body including:

  • Anemia: Drinking can cause your red blood cells to be abnormally low, which can lead to fatigue, lightheadedness and shortness of breath.
  • Cancer: Habitual drinking can lead to a higher risk of cancer in the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, breast, liver and colorectal region.
  • Cardiovascular disease: Regular drinking can lead to blood clots, which can then cause a heart attack or stroke. It can also cause cardiomyopathy, which is a weakening of the heart muscle.
  • Dementia: Heaving drinking can cause certain areas of your brain to shrink, leading to memory loss and other symptoms of dementia.
  • Seizures: Excessive drinking can cause epilepsy and trigger seizures.
  • High blood pressure: Alcohol can disrupt the sympathetic nerves that control the dilation and constriction of blood vessels. Over time, this can become chronic and can cause other issues such as kidney disease, stroke and heart disease.
  • Pancreatitis: Besides stomach irritation, heavy drinking can inflame the pancreas and cause severe abdominal pain.

The overuse of prescribed or illicit controlled substances, or the act of combining drugs and alcohol, can also lead to a variety of serious consequences including:

  • Increased odds of developing other medical issues
  • Problems sleeping
  • Cognitive issues
  • Balance problems
  • Delirium
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Potentially lethal adverse reactions

Before taking a medication, it’s best to check with your doctor to see if you can drink alcohol with it. Some common problems caused by mixing medication and alcohol are:

  • Stomach or intestinal bleeding when you combine aspirin and alcohol.
  • Extreme sleepiness when you combine alcohol with cold or allergy medicines.
  • Liver damage when you habitually combine acetaminophen and alcohol.
  • High blood alcohol levels when you consistently combine cough syrups or laxatives with alcohol.
  • The possibility of death when you consume large amounts of alcohol with high dosages of sleeping pills, pain pills or anti-depression or anxiety medication.

Warning Signs of Drug or Alcohol Addiction

 While it may be easier to brush off the situation, if you suspect a loved one has a drug or alcohol addiction, keep an eye out for these warning signs. Although some of the symptoms mimic other serious health issues, there are some very specific signs of drug abuse or addiction to look for:

  • Finding illegal narcotics or drug paraphernalia.
  • Seeing that your loved one is clearly high or inebriated.
  • Complaining about doctors who won’t write prescriptions for them.
  • Taking more than the required prescribed medication in front of you, but making excuses for doing it.

There are other generalized warning signs loved ones must be alert to as well:

  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns that cannot be linked to any other illness or condition.
  • Increase in the number of falls or missteps not related to any other medical issues.
  • Consistently changing doctors or having several physicians as a way of getting multiple prescriptions.
  • Getting prescriptions filled at numerous pharmacies.
  • Onset of agitation or irritability — while this can be a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, it can also be a sign of older adults’ alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Periods of confusion not related to another health problem.
  • Empty liquor or prescription bottles in the garbage, garage or recycling bin.
  • Lack of interest in social activities and hobbies.
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and appearance.
  • Unexplained bruises — possibly resulting from an unsteady gait or frequent falls.
  • Slurring of words and being defensive.

Prevention of Elderly Substance Abuse

 While aging is an inevitable part of life, drug and alcohol abuse doesn’t need to be a part of it. Early recognition, diagnosis and treatment can counteract the emotional and physical consequences brought on by habitual substance use.


Communication is the key to prevention. If your loved one is lonely or feeling isolated, chances are they know there is a problem, and they want help. However, they may be ashamed or afraid to ask for it. Some steps you can take to gently nudge your loved one in the direction of getting help include:

  • Being aware of physical limitations: Encourage the older adult to meet with a doctor or other health care professional before making dietary or lifestyle changes or undertaking any new activity that may cause stress or bring on anxiety.
  • Being respectful of individual preferences: Because older adults tend to be less flexible when it comes to lifestyle changes, they may be reluctant to adopt new habits or do things their peers enjoy. A psychiatrist or other doctor who specializes in geriatrics or aging issues can help.
  • Being tactful: An older adult with fragile self-worth and self-esteem may interpret your help as further proof of their declining health. Others may resent attempts at intervention and fall deeper into depression. A psychologist can help craft positive approaches for dealing with these issues no matter how sensitive the person is.

Other ways to prevent the abuse of drugs or alcohol for yourself or a loved one include:

  • Taking all your prescriptions and over-the-counter medications (or a list of) when visiting your physician or pharmacist. The doctor can make sure your medications and their doses are right for you.
  • Making sure to follow prescription directions carefully.
  • Only using prescribed and OTC medications for their intended uses.
  • Not breaking or crushing pills.
  • Asking about each medication’s side effects, especially when it comes to driving or other daily activities.
  • Not using someone else’s prescription medications.
  • Not stopping your medication without a doctor’s approval.
  • Learning about the medication’s possible interaction with other drugs and alcohol.
  • Being honest with your doctor or relative when they ask you whether you think you might be abusing drugs or alcohol.

If you are in a situation where drug or alcohol addiction is taking over your life or you know an older adult in need of substance abuse treatment, contact the professionals at 12 Keys. Our empathetic and caring staff is committed to giving you the best recovery program for your unique needs and situation. Our board-certified professionals and our state-of-the art facility will not only make your stay here comfortable, but it will allow you to be in an environment where you can do the hard emotional work of beating your addiction. If you are in a crisis, call us today.

The Addiction Blog