In December of 2022, The New York Times republished an article about a large group of people that is ignored in the addiction recovery context: senior citizens. Nearly a million people 65 and up struggle with opioid and alcohol abuse—and it’s not something we talk about very often. It can be hard to accept that the bedrock figures of our childhood—or our present day-lives for that matter—are battling against addiction at a vulnerable age. But the unfortunate reality is that opioid abuse among the elderly is occurring whether we notice it or not.
Why Do Seniors Become Addicted to Opioids?
People 65 and up are three times more likely to use opioids for pain management than a younger person. As one doctor explains, aging isn’t just a cultural, generational experience. It’s a physical one as well. As you age, your body ages with you. This brings inevitable bodily pain. Arthritis, back and other bodily injuries, cancer, inflexibility, general weakening of the muscles—all of these things can produce pain so acute that daily life can become unbearable.
If someone born in 1958 or earlier is going to the doctor to treat chronic pain, it’s safe to say that the pain is abundant. Many doctors prescribe very effective medicines to treat this pain, and those medicines are often opioids.
It’s easy for an elderly citizen to obtain an opioid prescription. What doctor is going to deny relief to a 65-year-old person with crippling back pain? It’s less common to see an older person buying heroin off the streets—although it surely happens. The more common avenue to opioid abuse is, legally and easily, a person’s local pharmacy.
Because opioids are so powerful, they can become addictive even when the person is using medications as prescribed. If a senior is experiencing intense physical pain and also dealing with isolation and mental health issues like depression and anxiety, they can all too easily come to rely on opioids for both physical and emotional pain relief.
Opioid medications are designed to be used on a short-term basis. But a senior with chronic pain can easily end up using their medications long-term. When this happens, tolerance builds in the body, meaning that more and higher doses are necessary to experience the same level of relief. Tolerance quickly leads to a physical dependence on the drug, and dependence, in the case of opioids, can lead to addiction.
Why Don’t We See Older People in Treatment?
Addiction treatment is often marketed toward younger adults. Additionally, when an adult is more active in their community – with employment, family, and friends – someone is likely to notice their substance use disorder and intervene. Seniors, on the other hand, are often retired and relatively isolated; if they ever arrive at treatment, it’s usually through the criminal justice or healthcare systems.
For example, an older person may be pulled over for driving under the influence of substances, or they may arrive at the hospital after suffering a fall or accident that opioid use provoked. While law enforcement can order treatment, hospitals don’t have to. With people in each industry leading busy lives, many senior citizens fall through the cracks.
In addition, family members who suspect an elderly family member of a substance use problem may take the attitude that it’s too late to help them. After all, getting sober would take time, effort, and money that would surely just overwhelm their elderly loved one–right? While it’s true that addiction treatment requires radical change and concerted effort, it’s a journey that anyone can begin, at any age. With the right support and the promise of a healthier, happier future, a senior citizen can succeed in treatment and live the rest of their lives with more energy and joy.
What St. Gregory Recovery Center Does to Support Seniors
At our Iowa facility, we believe that sobriety and well-being are for everyone at every age. That’s why we offer all of our clients the same support services:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy to help create healthy habits
- Equine therapy to offer healing through working with horses
- Group and family therapy to invite friends and younger family members to support their elderly family member in their treatment journey
Don’t hesitate to contact us today to discuss treatment plans and preparations for yourself or an elderly loved one. It’s never too late to eliminate opioids safely and in a supportive environment.