Attention on Older Americans and Drug Abuse

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May is Older Americans Month, which brings attention to the problem of prescription drug abuse in this population.

It’s of particular concern as U.S. demographics skew more and more toward senior citizens with baby boomers reaching retirement age.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), illicit drug abuse falls off as we age, with only about 1 percent of those older than 65 reporting illegal drug use (2004). This figure is expected to change as more of those from the “hippy” generation reach the milestone and is already changing with prescription drugs.

Prescription drug abuse is often not counted as “illegal” in surveys, but AARP reports that misuse and abuse of prescribed medications is rising in the elderly. Between 1995 and 2002, the number of substance abuse treatment admissions for people 55 and older increased by 32 percent, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2005).

Symptoms of Drug Abuse in the Elderly

Symptoms of drug abuse in the elderly are not specific to drug abuse and can be confused with signs of growing older:

  • Memory trouble after taking a medication or with alcohol (narcotics augment the effects of alcoholic beverages).
  • Frequent falls or lack of coordination
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Concealing medications or unwillingness to talk about pain killer use
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Confusion
  • Withdrawal from normal activities

These symptoms are based largely on narcotic abuse as this drug category has the highest incidence of dependence. Pain medications are commonly prescribed to the elderly, and they usually have a legitimate medical condition that warrants some level of treatment for pain.

If You're Concerned About a Loved One

Those concerned about an elderly person can broach the subject with their loved one’s doctor. This gives a pathway to intervention without directly challenging mom or dad. If multiple prescription bottles from different doctors are found, it is also appropriate to make a doctor aware that another provider may be prescribing the same (or similar) pain medication.

In most cases, the situation doesn’t require a detective or skilled investigator. All that’s really needed is a caring family member to pay attention. Showing concern and asking questions are worthwhile.

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