Recognizing Signs of Prescription Drug Addiction in the Elderly

Senior citizens, who are more prone to chronic aches and pains than other population groups, receive prescriptions for opioid painkillers more often than any other age group, and many seniors take multiple medications. However, medical providers often overlook the potential for addiction.

As a result, many older people don’t receive the help they need because signs of addiction are chalked up simply to failing memory, weakness or other stereotypical conditions of old age.

Senior citizens may turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the changes and difficulties of later life, which may involve retirement, loss of income, health problems, family conflicts, or death of a family member, friend or cherished pet.

Addictions among the elderly are sneaky and may be present for many years before the symptoms become apparent. It isn’t always easy to recognize addiction in the elderly, as the symptoms may mimic other problems.

If you’re concerned that an elderly friend or family member may be addicted to prescription drugs, watch for the following red flags:

  • Garbled or slurred speech
  • Changes in appetite
  • Anger or irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Becomes defensive or evasive when questioned about drug use
  • Hiding or sneaking medicine
  • Decreased attention span
  • Impaired judgment, memory loss or confusion
  • Loss of coordination or clumsiness
  • Delayed reaction time
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor (doctor shopping)
  • Filing prescriptions at two (or more) different pharmacies
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Dry, itchy skin or skin infections
  • Watery eyes or dilated pupils
  • History of drug or alcohol addiction
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Change in hygiene; loss of interest in personal appearance
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Drowsiness or nodding off
  • Insomnia or other sleep problems

What to do if you Suspect a Elderly Loved One is Abusing Prescription Medicines

Talk to your loved one’s health care provider if you’re concerned about addiction or substance abuse. She can help you determine if the problems are attributed to drug use, and if treatment is necessary.

Older people tend to feel great shame or embarrassment if word gets out they’re addicted to prescription painkillers, but they should be assured that addiction is a chronic but treatable illness, much like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Studies show that drug and alcohol treatment or rehab is just as effective for older people, who are often highly motivated to get well. It’s never too late, and treatment can greatly enhance your loved one’s quality of life.

Look for an addiction treatment provider that treats addiction, as well as any mental, physical, emotional and social issues that may be present. Treatment programs should be respectful and age-specific; older people often don’t do well in treatment with individuals who might be forty or fifty years younger.

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