How to Spot the Signs of Senior Substance Abuse

Elderly Addiction – How Substance Abuse Can Go Unnoticed and Untreated

Substance abuse is often associated with young adults and teenagers but increasingly, older adults fall prey to this type of abuse, requiring careful and caring support to start and follow through on the recovery process. This can be wearing for families or friends of a substance abuser, but their support is essential to facilitate identification of substance abuse so that the individual concerned can be offered the appropriate level of support.

Substance Abuse or the Effects of Age? Problems in Diagnosis

The particular trouble with the diagnosis of  substance abuse in elderly patients is the fact that many of the signs we may identify as associated with substance abuse can be confused with the effects of old age. When asked to think of a stereotypical drunk or drug abuser, rarely would one conjure up the image of their grandmother or grandfather, yet there are reportedly 2.5 million older adults in the US who are known to abuse alcohol or drugs . If an elderly person exhibits some of the telltale signs of substance abuse, such as seeming confused or lacking in coordination or balance a casual observer may write this off as the negative effects associated with old age rather than associating it with the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Just their Prescription?

Elderly substance abuse encompasses the same substances abused by the rest of the population, from prescription drugs through to illegal drugs and alcohol.  Unfortunately, the elderly body under the rigour of aging is particularly susceptible to damage caused by substances.  Some experts have even suggested that with regards to the elderly, the limits suggested for safe drinking are too high and need to be reviewed specifically for older people. Furthermore, some elderly people may be abusing substances without necessarily knowing it by cross medicating with different types of prescription medication.

Identification and Challenge

For families of the elderly substance abuser, they may be wary of challenging a respected elder if they demonstrate signs of substance abuse. There may be a tendency to think that if an elderly person enjoys a drink or too more than is good for them then they are ‘enjoying their twilight years’ after years of hard graft and responsibility. Furthermore, once firmly in the throes of addiction, a substance abuser might go out of their way to avoid friends and family. Where an elderly substance abuser is isolated, it can be very difficult for agencies to offer help and support, as the abuse may never be identified in the first place.


Friends and family need to be able to provide support to those who are abusing substance; the alternative being that the substance abuser is unlikely to face up to the damage that they are doing to themselves. This would be best started in the form of a supportive, not judgmental, conversation, acknowledging the signs of abuse that the friend or family member has observed, followed by some suggestions of solutions and support. If that does not work, families or friends may have to approach services themselves to discuss a way forward which the substance abuser will accept.

Support services, such as those provided by the Family Center for Recovery, are available for elderly people who have fallen into substance abuse, but it is essential that healthcare providers, friends and family are all aware of the signs and vulnerability of elderly patients or family members in order to try and halt the damage the abuse is causing at the earliest opportunity.

Lifting the Suboxone cap