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Drug Abuse in Seniors: How To Spot The Warning Signs


By Hazel Bridges

With the widespread opioid addiction crisis over the last decade, Americans have seen more and more seniors fall prey to drug abuse. While it can start for many different reasons, it can be extremely dangerous and difficult for the senior population to recover from substance abuse, and unfortunately misuse of prescription drugs by seniors is estimated to grow exponentially by 2020 --a 100% jump from 2001, according to

Often, seniors who don’t have sufficient health insurance coverage and are on a tight budget will resort to using medication meant for someone else, or they will self-medicate with over-the-counter drugs or alcohol. They may use these substances to numb the pain or to cope with loneliness, grief, or isolation, all of which affect many seniors even when they have loving family members around them. This use of substances can be dangerous or even deadly to a senior whose metabolism works more slowly than that of a younger person.

If you suspect your loved one is misusing drugs, there are ways you can help. Read on to find out how.

Get involved

It can be extremely difficult to differentiate between substance abuse and natural occurrences due to advanced age or health issues, so it’s important to get involved in your loved one’s life. Go to doctor appointments with them, ask questions, and find out about their general health. Don’t forget that physical health is just one aspect; learn about their mental and emotional health, as well.

Look for warning signs

Some warning signs are much more obvious than others. If your loved one has prescription pill bottles with someone else’s name on the label, that’s a red flag. Having issues with mobility and falls, however, could be caused by many different things. Benzodiazepines and opioid analgesics can lead to a fall, but so can an ear infection, side effects from a stroke, and problems with vision. If your loved one has recently received a clean bill of health and is still having issues with balance and coordination, substances could be the culprit.

If your loved one fills a prescription for the same medicine at two different pharmacies, often appears confused or forgetful, refuses to leave the house without their medication, hides medicine, or becomes defensive about it, these may be warning signs of an addiction problem.

Take steps to manage depression

Seniors are just as prone to dealing with depression as anyone else; more so, in some cases, because they may be feeling isolated, coping with grief after losing a loved one, or dealing with a health issue that they aren’t ready to talk about. Depression is a mood disorder that can be greatly affected by substance abuse, and the two can mask one another, making them harder to diagnose separately. One of the best ways to help your loved one is by spending time with her to get a feel for her moods and her thoughts on her living situation. The symptoms of depression can vary, but some warning signs are a sudden lack of proper hygiene, changes in sleep patterns or appetite, mood swings, and self-imposed isolation from friends and family.

Keep communication open

Talk to your loved one, your family members, and their doctor about your concerns. Ask about the best ways you can help, and pay attention to any overt warning signs. Write them down so you can communicate effectively with your loved one’s doctor.

Tackling drug abuse with someone you care about is never easy. It can have profound effects on your mental health, which can lead to stress and even depression. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for help rather than trying to manage it all by yourself. It might be a rocky road, but you’ll be glad you stuck it out to help your loved one.

Hazel Bridges is a freelance write and a Wellness Coach for Seniors.

Substance Abuse and Seniors
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