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Addiction Treatment for Seniors: A Comprehensive Guide

As of 2018, nearly 1 million Americans, ages 65 and older, met the criteria for having a substance use disorder (SUD).[1] Social and physical changes in their lives could lead to the increase of substance misuse, both intentionally and unintentionally. As people age, they are more likely to develop chronic health conditions that warrant prescription medications, which can lead to accidental mixing of medications and dangerous drug interactions.[1]

Struggling with Addiction? Get Help Now

Beyond prescription medication misuse, seniors are at risk for a variety of addictions. Recent data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reflects the following:[1]

  • Between 4% and 9% of older adults use prescription opioid medications.
  • From 2013 to 2015, the proportion of seniors using heroin, partly because it was cheaper than using prescription opioids, more than doubled.
  • The use of marijuana in older adults increased from 0.4% in 2007 to 2.9% in 2016.
  • As of 2017, approximately eight in 100 adults over the age of 65 smoked cigarettes, and approximately 300,000 seniors died from smoking-related causes. 
  • Alcohol is the most widely used substance by older adults, with 65% engaging in high-risk drinking, and 10% reporting binge drinking.
  • Alcohol use disorder is the leading cause of admission to a treatment program for adults over the age of 65.

Drug addiction impacts senior’s health and well-being. Seniors are more likely to develop health issues, mood disorders, and memory problems, which can all be exacerbated by substance abuse. Regular substance use among seniors has been linked to chronic respiratory problems, reduced memory, depression, irregular heart function, reduced judgment, and reduced motor skills.[1]

Identifying Substance Abuse & Addiction in Seniors

It can be challenging to recognize signs of substance abuse and addiction in seniors, as they can be mistaken for natural effects of aging. Due to a general lack of awareness of substance abuse in older adults by society, caregivers, and family members, addiction in seniors can go largely unnoticed and untreated. 

Older adults also tend not to seek addiction treatment in traditional settings. They may feel fine about using substances to cope with the process of aging and loss.[2] 

Signs of substance abuse in seniors include the following:[4]

  • Changes in mood, such as sadness or depression
  • Anxiousness or irritability
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Reduced interested in activities 
  • Financial or legal problems
  • Falls or bruises 
  • Difficulty controlling bodily functions
  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor nutrition 
  • Isolation from family and friends

Family members and healthcare providers must educate themselves about the signs of substance abuse in older adults. Older adults and their family members may feel shame over seeking treatment, but recovery at every age is possible. 

Addiction Treatment Options for Seniors

Studies have found that substance use disorder treatment for older adults is highly effective, especially when it is adjusted to meet their age-related needs.[3] 

Interventions must be adapted to meet seniors’ physical, cognitive, and social needs, and it can be offered through various settings. All treatment programs should address the comprehensive needs of the individual, including their physical ability, mental and emotional health, social life, and individual and community activities.[3]

Treatment options for older adults are similar to anyone struggling with substance abuse and include the following: 

Due to their higher rates of co-occurring mental and physical disorders, as well as cognitive impairments and sensitivity to substances, older adults are at a greater risk of experiencing complications during drug withdrawal. Receiving treatment in an inpatient setting during this time can help to ensure a safe withdrawal process as well as strong emotional and psychological support throughout the process.[3]

An individualized approach to treatment is the preferred method of care for treating seniors with an addiction. The person’s unique set of needs, values, and goals are all considered and incorporated into treatment planning.  

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment for Seniors

High-quality treatment programs can be offered in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Inpatient settings require clients to live at the hospital or clinic where the program is being delivered. Care is intensive and provided around the clock. In an outpatient setting, many of the same services of an inpatient program are offered, but participants live at home and travel to the program location for their treatment sessions.[5]

Factors to consider before selecting an inpatient versus outpatient program include the following:[3]

  • How will the individual’s physical needs be met, regarding any difficulties with walking, hearing, seeing, or other physical limitations? 
  • How are cognitive challenges addressed, such as issues with memory and attention?
  • Is information repeated or delivered at a slower pace if needed?
  • Are age-related preferences accounted for, such as being in an age-specific group versus a mixed-aged treatment group?

Whether an inpatient or outpatient program is right for you depends on your personal situation. Factors such as stable housing, social support, and reliable transportation must also be considered when deciding between an inpatient or outpatient treatment program. 

Intervention Strategies for Senior Addiction

Staging an intervention can be an effective way to motivate a loved one to seek addiction treatment. Many people with an addiction are hesitant to seek help and may be unaware of how their substance abuse affects their loved ones. A well-staged intervention provides close family members and friends the opportunity to share how they have been impacted by the person’s substance use, how much they care for the person, and how they would like to see the person get help.[6]  

To conduct an effective intervention for seniors, take the following steps:

  • Prepare examples of how the person’s substance use has been harmful to the various members of the intervention team.
  • Provide a potential treatment plan, with clear steps and goals the individual can achieve.
  • Identify consequences for what will happen if the person does not seek treatment. 

Family and friends play an essential role in an intervention and are strongly encouraged to seek guidance from addiction professionals. Intervention specialists can help the team members prepare well for the intervention to make it as effective as possible. They can also help to manage emotions and prepare the team for all possible outcomes, including the possibility that the individual may not accept help.[6]

Financing Senior Addiction Treatment

The cost of addiction treatment can be expensive. Fortunately, most insurance plans now offer mental health and addiction treatment coverage. If you have private health insurance, contact your insurance provider to find out what types of addiction treatment are available to you and how much of the cost is covered.

Almost 12% of people over the age of 18 who are enrolled in Medicaid have a substance use disorder and treatment is available to them.[8] For seniors with Medicare, substance abuse treatment is considered an essential health benefit and is a covered service.[7] Exact health benefits vary by state and the plan you selected, so consult your specific plan to find out how to get your treatment covered.

To discover additional ways to afford addiction treatment, explore the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) resources on How to Pay for Treatment.

Seeking Treatment for Seniors

Seniors present with a unique set of needs regarding addiction treatment that must be considered when seeking treatment. Older adults are more likely to have chronic health conditions and take prescription medications, which increase the risk of substance misuse. By appreciating their unique needs, family members and caregivers can support older adults in seeking the treatment services they deserve.

Shame surrounding addiction can be a barrier for older adults to seek treatment, but it doesn’t have to be.[2] It is never too late to seek addiction treatment, as there is potential for recovery at every age. Smokers, for example, who quit smoking after the age of 65 can add years to their life expectancy and reduce their risk of coronary heart disease by half.[1] 

Getting treatment as soon as possible will help to reduce serious health complications caused by substance use. In rehab, seniors can acquire the skills needed to stop substance abuse and carry on healthy and productive lives. It just takes the first step to reach out for help. 

Updated February 18, 2024
Resources
  1. Substance use in older adults drug facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published July 2020. Accessed February 2, 2024.
  2. Older adults and substance use disorder. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed February 2, 2024.
  3. Treating substance use disorder in older adults. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published 2020. Accessed February 2, 2024.
  4. Substance abuse and misuse among older adults. American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. Published November 1, 2022. Accessed February 2, 2024.
  5. Types of treatment. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published April 24, 2023. Accessed February 2, 2024.
  6. Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction. Mayo Clinic. Published November 29, 2023. Accessed February 2, 2024.
  7. Mental health and substance abuse coverage. HealthCare.gov. Accessed February 2, 2024.
  8. Substance use disorders. Medicaid. Accessed February 2. 2024.
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