How to Spot Signs of Senior Substance AbuseHow to Spot Signs of Senior Substance Abuse

Seniors are just as likely as younger adults to fall victim to the opioid painkiller addiction epidemic, which puts them at risk of overdose and death. Older adults are now hospitalized for opioid addiction five times more often than 20 years ago, in part because so many seniors are prescribed the drugs after surgery. Of course, older adults can develop problems with alcohol and other drugs, too. And the signs of drug and alcohol abuse sometimes go unnoticed or are mistaken for symptoms of other problems. Here are some of the early signs of substance abuse to watch for in your parents.

Encourage your parents to go to the doctor if you notice them doing any of these things, especially if you know they’ve been taking prescription pain medication:

  • falling or having frequent balance problems
  • neglecting their personal appearance
  • eating noticeably more or less than usual
  • acting agitated or confused
  • avoiding friends and family members

Other flags for possible addiction in seniors are asking for refills before they’re due, asking for addictive medications when they’re at the doctor, frequently “losing” prescription meds, and going from doctor to doctor for pain problems that never seem to get resolved.

Other substance use concerns

Marijuana use—for pain relief or recreation—is legal in some parts of the US now, and while that’s good news for many patients it has researchers concerned about seniors, who are a growing market for the drug. Some doctors worry that marijuana may raise the risk of falls or confusion, and others say there’s not enough research to know for sure how marijuana affects seniors. If your parents use medical marijuana, make sure they’re checking in regularly with their prescribing doctor and have someone around in case they fall or need help.

Many seniors drink alcohol regularly – about 40% of people age 65 and up. But older adults tend to feel the effects of a drink faster than they did when they were younger. That means your parents may need to cut back on their alcohol intake to reduce their risk of falls and car accidents, even if they don’t have a problem with alcohol abuse. Alcohol can also worsen some common senior health problems and interfere with some medications. Women are at increasing risk for alcoholism as they grow older, and social isolation and grief are also risk factors for senior alcohol abuse. If your parent is drinking more than 3 alcoholic beverages a day or more than 7 each week, they may have a problem.

How to get help for your parents

When you think your parents need help, see if you can get them to talk to their doctor about it—especially if the drugs they take no longer help their pain. You may need to have more than one conversation to convince your folks to get help if they don’t see their behavior as a problem. Your parents’ doctor or the local Area Agency on Aging may be able to recommend treatment programs tailored to seniors’ needs. It’s also a good idea to check out the Medicare Rights Center’s information on Medicare coverage for addiction treatment and look for in-network programs. You might also open a conversation about hiring in-home care or finding an assisted living community if their addiction stems in part from isolation.

Learn more about in-home care and assisted living options at

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.


  1. Anthea September 27, 2017 Reply

    What you describe above sounds to me to be dependancy, something caused by the nature of the drugs that were prescribed. Calling it abuse or addiction makes it sound like the person is to blame not the drug, this makes it less likely that someone will seek help.

  2. Tim Anderson November 9, 2018 Reply

    I think the best thing to do is not let them take their medicines themselves. A relative/caregiver should be the one to take care of the medicine so they can be sure that the right dosage is taken.

  3. Olivia Pearson December 21, 2018 Reply

    I appreciate how you mentioned that if someone is intentionally avoiding family and friends, it could be a sign that they are using drugs. My uncle used to have a problem with marijuana, and recently he’s been staying home from family reunions and acting strange. We’ll have to find an addiction recovery service that can help him identify the triggers of his addiction so he can become his normal, sociable self again.

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