Addiction in Older Adults: A Problem on the Rise

Substance abuse can look different as people age

Jane’s adult children worried she was sinking into dementia. Her behavior had changed. She wasn’t taking care of her physical appearance. She was forgetful and missing appointments. Maybe it was time, family members wondered, to move her into assisted living. 

Then they discovered the real problem: at the age of 89, Jane was an alcoholic. 

She’d struggled with alcoholism earlier in life but had been sober since age 70. She had taken sobriety seriously, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and sponsoring others who struggled. But after a series of setbacks—her husband of 57 years died, she had to stop driving, and worsening arthritis meant she couldn’t swim anymore—Jane relapsed. 

“I think she was lonely, and felt a lot of loss, and thought, ‘I haven’t drank in 20 years; maybe I can just have a glass of wine,’” said Diana Santiago, MSW, clinical supervisor of the Older Adult Program at Caron Treatment Centers, where Jane eventually underwent treatment. “After a couple of months, she was right back where she started.” 

Jane’s story isn’t uncommon. Substance addiction is on the rise among older adults. 

“Nearly one million adults 65 and up in the United States are living with a substance abuse disorder,” said Lisa Stern, LCSW, assistant vice president, Senior & Adult Services at Family & Children’s Association (FCA), a human services agency on Long Island, NY. From 2002 to 2021, the rate of overdose deaths, accidental or intentional, quadrupled among older adults, according to a research letter published in the March 2023 JAMA Psychiatry

Alcohol and prescription painkillers top the list of substances most commonly abused by people 60 and up. Most older people admitted to treatment facilities are addicted to alcohol. Approximately 20 percent of all adults ages 60 to 64, and around 11 percent over age 65, report they are currently binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In later life, people are more likely to use alcohol or drugs to relieve pain than to get high. 

Opioid abuse is rising among older people too. While the US population of adults 55 and older rose by about 6 percent between 2013-2015, the proportion of people in that age group seeking treatment for opioid use disorder increased nearly 54 percent. The proportion of older adults using heroin more than doubled between 2013-2015 (in part due to those who switched to heroin—an illicit opioid—after misusing prescription opioids). One study estimated that the prevalence of prescription drug abuse among older adults may be as high as 11 percent.

Marijuana use is also on the rise among older people in the United States. However, experts suspect that’s due to Boomers, the first generation to widely accept marijuana use, reaching older age. Admission to treatment facilities for marijuana alone is rare, although it can often be part of the mix of drugs and/or alcohol that led to addiction.

Older addicts tend to follow different patterns than those who are younger. They include “hardy survivors”—people like Jane, who struggled with addiction for years off and on or continuously. Others first become addicts in their later years. Use of illicit drugs, like cocaine or meth, declines after young adulthood. But common challenges in later life—isolation, depression and anxiety, financial worries, family conflict, the loss of a spouse or other loved ones, physical or mental decline, adapting to retirement—can turn into triggers for abuse. 

“Older adults are less likely to use drugs or alcohol to get high,” said Jeremy Klemanski, MBA, CEO of Gateway Foundation, one of the nation’s largest addiction treatment organizations. “Instead, they tend to use these substances to reduce pain or handle emotional difficulties.” 

Many older adults experience chronic pain, anxiety or insomnia, all of which may be treated with highly addictive medications like opioids or benzodiazepines (“benzos”), like alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan.) Older people may be even more prone to abuse these drugs than their younger counterparts. Plus, many older adults must manage multiple health conditions with an assortment of medications prescribed by several specialists, usually without careful coordination, making misuse or overuse more likely. 

“These prescriptions are often not monitored closely, as seniors who cannot get out easily do not follow up regularly with their physicians,” said Stern. “Doctors should be making patients aware of drugs that can be highly addictive, but often they don’t have these conversations. The older adult may be taking the medication incorrectly, or taking too much, but not considering it abusive.” 

Physiological changes that occur with aging can make substance use riskier and misuse more deadly. The ability to metabolize drugs or alcohol declines with age. Someone who could have a beer or two in their 30s with no consequences, for example, is more likely to become impaired in their 60s or 70s. 

Addiction Can Be Easily Missed

Substance abuse is often overlooked or misdiagnosed in older adults. Many of the symptoms of abuse—forgetfulness, drowsiness, confusion, mood swings or shaky hands—are easily dismissed as signs of aging. Even when addiction is recognized, family members are often prone to minimize it.

“People may think the older adult isn’t working or driving, so what’s the harm?” said Klemanski. “The harm is that the substance is harmful physically, and addiction is often a sign of loneliness and lack of connectedness. Both can lead to premature death.” 

Santiago cited a patient in his early 60s who’d been prescribed Aricept for dementia. 

“His medical records indicated that he had Alzheimer’s,” she said. “When he came in for treatment, he was confused and his memory was bad.” 

As it turned out, the patient had been taking a variety of stimulants, opioids and benzodiazepines, along with alcohol. After four weeks without the drugs and alcohol, the man scored within normal range in a follow-up cognitive screening. 

That scenario is not uncommon, Santiago added.

“Once we’re able to clear the substances away, we’re able to see what’s really going on, and nine times out of 10, those older adult patients have their cognition improved significantly,” she said. 

Confronting Trauma 

The telltale sign that Tim, 68, had a problem was his credit card statements. Family members discovered he was “drunk buying” guitars online, ultimately spending more than $100,000, which he couldn’t afford. His daughter referred him to FCA Long Island for treatment. 

In counseling, Tim shared how his mother had walked out on his family when he was 14 and was never heard from again. For the first time, he realized that trauma had affected his relationships for more than 50 years. 

Unresolved trauma is a common factor contributing to addiction among older adults, according to Chris Walter, a certified recovery peer advocate at FCA. 

“Often the Boomers don’t want to talk about these things,” he said. “That wasn’t a generation that went to therapy or talked about their problems. If we can get that [childhood trauma] out, it does help them to free up demons.”  

People who have had a successful life can become isolated as they age, with time on their hands, and fill that vacuum with alcohol or drugs. 

Older adulthood, of course, can also bring new trauma and loss. Friends and family members die. A move from a longtime home to assisted living can feel like a death. Retirement, or an unplanned job loss, may leave an older adult at loose ends. 

That’s what happened with Dan, 63, when he lost his job 17 years ago. He spiraled from a social drinker into an alcoholic. 

“When you go from being a workaholic, and your professional career to a large extent defines you, to being undecided about your future and with whom you fit in, it leads to self-questioning, and for some of us, self-medicating,” he said.  

“It’s very typical to have an older adult [with addiction] who has had a successful life,” said Klemanski. “They’ve raised children. They’ve had a career or contributed something positive to their community. But as they got older, some of the things that helped define life are pulled away from them. They may have more time on their hands or feel isolated. A vacuum occurs, and that’s filled with alcohol or drugs.”  

Getting Treatment

Drinking got Francisco, 68, banned from the local senior center. He’d shown up intoxicated, behaved aggressively and fell in the parking lot. He was referred for treatment at FCA Long Island. Counselors discovered that he was not only drinking a pint of vodka a day but also taking clonazepam (Klonopin) prescribed by his doctor for anxiety. 

In treatment, counselors helped Francisco to better manage his drinking and to address a root cause of the problem: isolation. His case manager set up a meal delivery service, so he’d eat more nutritious meals more regularly, and provided him with a tablet computer and Amazon Echo device, along with lessons on how to use both. 

“He was able to learn how to access YouTube and the internet, which allowed him to enjoy his passions of cars and music in a new way and socialize virtually to reduce his isolation,” said Christiana Mangiapane, LMSW, director of senior mental health services at FCA Long Island. “As a result, he had something to look forward to every day besides a drink.” 

Francisco’s treatment seems to be helping. But as the numbers of older adults struggling with addiction increase, many worry that treatment facilities and programs can’t keep up. Researchers for the JAMA Psychiatry report on overdoses urged policy makers to pursue proposals applying mental health parity rules within Medicare, so that older adults will have better mental health and substance-use disorder coverage and more options. Medicare has covered opioid treatment programs such as methadone clinics since 2020 and will cover a broader range of outpatient treatments beginning in January 2024. However, it does not cover residential treatment.

When older people who are addicted get treatment, they have a better chance of recovering than people who are younger. 

Models of care for treating substance abuse in older people are still evolving. Inpatient treatment typically begins with detox—a period of medical observation while the patient withdraws from the substance, sometimes with the aid of medication. Because older adults tend to metabolize drugs more slowly, most need longer periods of detox. 

Other treatment approaches might include individual counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups, medication and building connections with other people. Ideally, treatment is tailored to individual needs. Older adults with other medical or mental health issues must have those managed while in residential treatment. Support groups with peers, rather than with people in their 20s and 30s, are more effective. 

“A 74-year-old man who’s retired and whose wife just died isn’t going to relate to a bunch of 30-year-olds with small children and jobs, whose struggles might relate more to drinking too much when they’re with friends,” said Santiago. 

On the plus side, recovery rates tend to be higher among older adults who seek treatment compared to younger adults, according to Klemanski. 

“Their positive life experiences help them focus on the benefits of rehab, which can make them more disciplined in their recovery,” he said.   

Finding Sobriety

Still, the first hurdle is motivating the older adult to seek help. For Dan, that motivation came in the form of a health scare. His drinking finally led to liver disease; doctors told him he’d need a transplant or he’d die within three months.  

“Treatment for me was literally a life-or-death decision,” he said. 

Dan enrolled in a program at Gateway and cobbled together his own recovery strategy, combining the support of friends and family with daily prayer and attending Mass four times a week at his church. He’s been sober for more than a year now. To his doctor’s surprise, his liver disease seems to be in remission. 

For him, the AA principle of “one day at a time” was his key coping strategy.

“Anyone who has [quit drinking] knows it’s more like 10 or 20 minutes at a time,” he said. “Everyone has to develop the tricks, skills and tools that work for them.”

For Jane, an intervention staged by her adult children spurred her to travel from Florida to Wernersville, PA, to undergo residential treatment at Caron Treatment Centers. By age 90, Jane was once again sober. A follow-up cognitive screening showed that Jane didn’t have dementia after all.  

“Her memory came back, and she was able to live independently again,” said Santiago. “Even though she may only have a few years left on this earth, she’s enjoying a better quality of life during those years.”