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10 Signs of Substance Abuse in Older Adults

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When you think of an addict, you probably envision a young person living on the street or someone middle-aged who needs a drink to make it through the day. In tragic reality, addiction doesn’t discriminate by age. Substance abuse in elderly populations is more dangerous and more common than you might think. You need to be aware of the signs of substance abuse in older adults.

Spilled pill bottle from elderly addict


The most common drugs abused by older Americans are many of the most common drugs abused nationwide:

  • Opioids — Addiction to these painkillers is sweeping the nation, regardless of age. Addiction often begins following a prescription of painkillers that turns into a dependence. Commonly abused opioids include Oxycodone, Percocet, Fentanyl, and Hydromorphone.
  • Alcohol — As a legal and socially acceptable drug, alcohol is one of the most common substances used by senior citizens. Even if the person was able to drink socially at a younger age, they may be more susceptible to alcohol dependence as they are older and possibly isolated.
  • Anti-Anxiety (Benzodiazepines) — Another prescription drug that is commonly abused, anti-anxiety medications are often prescribed by primary care physicians. The most common anti-anxiety medications that are abused include Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan.

Since the drugs most often abused can hide in the plain-sight – consider a prescription pill bottle or a fifth of nice brandy – recognizing the signs of substance abuse in older adults is important.


Signs of Substance Abuse Among the Elderly

Elderly woman struggling with alcoholism


While diagnosing drug addiction can be a challenge for people of any age, it is especially difficult as far as the elderly are concerned.

One of the reasons that recognizing substance abuse among senior citizens is so difficult is that the signs of substance abuse are similar to the side effects of getting old. In addition to just looking for specific behaviors, you need to look for a drastic change in their behavior.

  1. Changes in Mood — Whether they used to be happy and now they’re irritable all the time, or vice-versa, a sudden and unexplained change in mood is cause for further inspection. While there might be a good reason for it, it can also be a sign of a well-masked drug or alcohol habit.
  2. “Losing” Prescriptions — One of the most common ways senior citizens successfully feed their drug abuse is by lying to doctors about losing important prescriptions — to cover the actual frequency with which they are taking them. If you start to hear stories about losing medications and picking up more at the drug store, be on your guard.
  3. Nodding Off — It might seem innocent, but if your elderly loved one nods off in conversation, ask yourself if it is possible they were under the influence.
  4. Excessive Sleeping —If your loved ones’ sleeping habits change drastically, and they aren’t sick, that could be a sign of a chemical dependence.
  5. Memory Loss and Confusion (When Not a Sign of Memory Illness) — As we mentioned, one of the reasons that it’s difficult to recognize signs of substance abuse is because it’s similar to the ordinary signs of aging. While memory loss and confusion can come with the territory of aging, they are also the signs of someone who is under the influence.
  6. Having 2 or More Doctors Filling the Same Prescription — This is a sign you’ll notice when looking through their medicine cabinet. If you see two or more prescription bottles for the same medication with different doctors’ names, you need to have a conversation. While it’s possible it was an honest mistake, some elderly people with addictions are very effective at scamming doctors.
  7. Preferring to Be Alone — Withdrawing from the people in your life is a common sign of depression, substance abuse, or both. If you notice that your elderly loved one is retreating from the people they are closest to, that may warrant your investigation.
  8. Lying about Simple Things  — Just like addiction is an all-ages affliction, this is an all-ages sign. When people are working hard to cover up a drug dependence, they have to start inventing alternate stories to cover when they were under the influence. If you catch someone lying about seemingly innocent things, ask yourself what they may really be hiding.
  9. Smelling of Alcohol — Alcohol has the dead giveaway of emitting a strong scent. If you catch the strong scent of alcohol on your loved ones’ breath way too often or at inappropriate times, you may need to have a conversation.
  10. Messy House or Appearance — Like most of these signs, this one is about looking for a big change. If your loved ones were always this way, no worries. But if they suddenly stop straightening up — and cleaning up — it might be a sign to look a little closer.

Experienced In-Home Caregivers

Caregiver helping patient with medications


By Your Side Home Care is a home care company serving York and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania. Our caregivers provide and perform a variety of essential services for older adults who want to stay in their homes.

Our caregivers do it all, including cooking healthy meals, performing household chores, and providing much-needed companionship. Learn more about our services and the cost of care.

If you want to find out if your loved ones need in-home care, take our brief quiz.

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