Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly: Prevalence, Symptoms, and How to Help

Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly

Prescription drug abuse is a serious issue among Americans. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 52 million people have used prescription drugs for reasons other than medication at least once. This phenomenon typically affects the younger population—1 in 12 high school seniors reported abusing Vicodin, a powerful prescription pain medicine, in the past year. (OxyContin came in second at 1 in 20 high school seniors abusing it within the past year.) Prescription drug abuse does not stop at 18 or 21 or even 50, however.

According to NIDA, people aged 65 and older are more likely to be prescribed long-term prescriptions and are more likely to have multiple prescriptions at any given time, increasing the risk factors for drug abuse. They are also more likely to be subject to cognitive impairment, which could in and of itself lead them to inadvertently abuse drugs. Non-medical use and un-monitored use of medications by the elderly can lead to serious side effects and drug interactions.

According to, two types of medications commonly prescribed for elderly people increase the risk for drug abuse. They are opioids (such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet) and benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin). These medicines are addictive based largely on long-term use, a risk factor commonly associated with age.

Symptoms of Drug Abuse/Addiction

Drug abuse and addiction are notoriously personal, emotional, and difficult for families to detect. Most people who abuse drugs or are addicted to them will put up a brick wall of denial. They may behave dishonestly too, even if such behavior is uncharacteristic. In fact, personality and behavioral changes often accompany drug abuse and addiction, so if your loved one is expressing excessive anger and seems like a stranger at times, stealing, or hiding things, this could be an indication of drug abuse and/or addiction. If your elderly loved one hoards medications, takes more than is prescribed (and lies or makes up excuses about it), or has a particular medication prescribed by more than one doctor and/or has the prescription filled at more than one pharmacy, these are symptoms that you loved one may be abusing drugs.

In general, drug abuse and drug addiction are indicated by things simply not adding up: excuses and stories told about why the bottle is empty again don’t make sense. If the elderly person seems excessively fearful about running out of a particular drug (indicating dependency), a problem may be brewing. If your elderly loved one shows some of the above signs or has a history of alcoholism or drug abuse, it may be time to talk to your elderly loved one’s physician about his or her prescriptions and drug use.


It is likely that some form of medical treatment will be needed…

Treatments for drug abuse vary depending on the drug, the health of the addicted person, and the resources available. It is likely that some form of medical treatment will be needed to help with the sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms of prescription drugs, and that counseling or therapy will help your loved one get through this difficult time.

What You Can Do

Remember, first and foremost, that addiction is a disease, not a choice. At some point choice is involved, but some people have a genetic tendency toward addiction, so that the same choices other people make may lead them, and not others, into addiction. Social, emotional, psychological, and environmental influences also play a part. Addiction is complicated, but it is important to treat it as a medical problem, not a moral one. Stigmatizing addiction only complicates it and makes it harder to diagnose and treat. For more information on this topic, check out

If your loved one is diagnosed with drug addiction, ask the doctor what you can do to support their recovery from this disease.

Remain patient. Many of those who suffer from drug addiction relapse—that is, they begin abusing drugs again—after they begin recovery. This is normal, and, while scary, does not mean that they will never recover.

Seek community support. Organizations like Narcotics Anonymous bring together people of all ages and creeds as they work through addiction and provide mentorship, emotional support, and family resources along the way. Not everyone likes the Alcoholics Anonymous offshoot, however, so be open to finding new avenues of support. Religious organizations, support groups set up through a treatment facility or doctor’s office, and even family therapy can offer emotional and physical support when the road to recovery is difficult. Addicts who find support in this way are more likely to be successful in their recovery.

Find ways to make it easier for your loved one to recover and harder for them to relapse. Many addicts who are recovering from prescription drug addiction allow family members or caregivers to hold on to or hide their medication, doling out only what is necessary for each dosage. Some choose to have smaller amounts prescribed by their doctors so that they cannot abuse the medication at all. Others are held accountable by constant social interaction and checking in. Depending on your loved one, these or any combination thereof can help them remain stable and happy enough for recovery.


Sources (October 2015). Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly. Available at Retrieved 1/13/2016.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (November 2014). Prescription Drug Abuse: From the Director. Available at Retrieved 1/13/2016.

NIDA. (November 2014). Prescription Drug Abuse: Older adults. Available at Retrieved 1/13/2016.