Opioid Crisis at Home: Addiction in the Elderly Population

Alcohol and drug abuse among adults 60 years and older is underestimated and under-diagnosed. To caregivers, whether they are a spouse, adult child, or a home health aide, understanding how and where to get help for their loved one is critical to getting a person in treatment.

Nationwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers found a 33.3 percent increase in older adult (ages 65 and older) deaths from heroin between 2014 and 2015 (heroin deaths for all ages rose only 21 percent).

Doctors fail to diagnose drug addiction in older adults because some of the symptoms experienced by alcohol and drug abusers mimic symptoms more common in older adults generally. Alcohol and drug abusers, like older adults, suffer from depression, diabetes, and dementia. It may be harder to attribute the cause to alcohol or drugs rather than old age, so treatment is under-diagnosed.

Survivors versus late onset addicts

Some individuals have been abusing drugs for many, many years. They have avoided death from overdose or related diseases and continue to function at work and socially despite their addiction. These survivors may have tried alcohol or drug treatment and been successful staying off alcohol or drugs for many years but are now experiencing a relapse and continue to abuse the substances in their old age.

The late onset addicts on the other hand, becomes addicted later in life. There are many instances of people becoming addicted to opioids as a result of medical treatment for diseases associated with chronic pain. For years doctors prescribed opioids to individuals suffering from back injury, cancer, multiple sclerosis, stomach ulcers, AIDS, or gallbladder disease. The permanence of the pain meant that individuals took opioids to control their pain several times a day. After a short period because of the addictive nature of the drugs individuals became addicted and do not know how to stop.

Physicians felt an opioid prescription was the best solution to keep a patient functioning who does not have time, money or transportation to travel long distances for physical therapy or surgery to relieve pain. Many states, including New York, have filed lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors, as was done in the 1990s against the tobacco industry, because of the aggressive marketing of these highly addictive substances.

Treatment doesn’t have to be voluntary to be effective

For more information about treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, ask your medical provider. Behavioral counseling, medication, and relapse prevention methods may help your loved one get on the road to recovery. More information is available at the National Institutes of Health website. For any caregiver, an addicted older person may be neglecting self-care and present many other health problems. You do not have to do it alone. Get help from Alcoholics Anonymous, drug treatment centers, and community organizations.

Addiction is not the only opioid-related impact on older adults. Read our next post on the rise in elder abuse is tied to the opioid epidemic.

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