Elderly Drug Abuse

Elderly Drug Abuse

Elderly substance abuse is close to becoming an epidemic in this country. There are three main contributing factors: the amount of prescription pills that are being prescribed to them; boredom as the result of no routine; and isolation. The most common prescriptions fall under two categories–opioids and benzodiazepines. Examples of opioids are Vicodin, Oxycodone, and Percocet which are generally used for pain. Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Ativan, and Valium are primarily prescribed for anxiety and panic attacks. A major concern is that many of the symptoms of abuse are the same as behavior that is considered normal for this population–irritability, forgetfulness, and accidents. To compound the problem, since elderly bodies are not what they used to be, their internal organs have a hard time filtering these medications which increases the risk of overdosing.

Experts do not expect to see a decline in the number of aging addicts and alcoholics any time soon. According to a study in Annals of Epidemiology referred to by John Hopkins, “the number of people age 50 and older abusing prescription drugs could increase 190% over the next two decades from 911,000 in 2001 to almost 2.7 million by 2020. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, of the 184,000 of Americans who started treatment for any type of drug abuse in 2005, 10% were age 50 or older.” These are staggering numbers and do not include the other age groups that are being affected by prescription drugs as well.

The prescription drug abuse problem as a whole is getting serious attention from the media and government. Florida is the most recent state to take on the battle because there are seven overdoses a day connected to prescription drugs from pain centers.2 Although a few laws have been put in place and there is a master list of patients and what they are being prescribed, these medications can still be obtained from the black market, patients go to other states, and some individuals fill prescriptions in their own name to give to the addict. What about the people who have a legitimate need for these medications? How can you tell who does and who does not? Unfortunately, this is not a black and white issue, therefore the solution will be hard to come by.

In 2011 the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released a “2011 Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan”, a follow up to the Obama Administration’s National Control Strategy. The plan addresses four major areas of action. The first is education for physicians, parents and educators to make them aware of every aspect of prescription drug abuse. Monitoring is the second plan of action, but like the above example in Miami, the black market is still easily accessible. Next, proper medication disposal is not only helpful in limiting access to pills, but it also benefits our drinking water. According to an Associated Press investigation, “a vast array of pharmaceuticals “including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.”3 Enforcement is the final area of action. Law enforcement officials need the training and education to stop pill mills and doctors from over prescribing.

Recovery is possible and can lead to a fulfilling life with an opportunity to heal relationships with family and friends. The 12 Steps benefit aging baby boomers, generation X’ers and everyone in between. This means traditional treatment is beneficial, however, there most likely will be a longer and more complicated detoxification process. What about after treatment? The patient must have transportation to get to follow-up appointments and AA meetings. It is also important for the individual to stay active through exercise and engaged in a community to combat the boredom and isolation that so often comes at this age. There may not be a clear answer to the problem of abusing prescription medication but there is a clear solution for people who want to get their lives back.


  1. “Drug Abuse and the Elderly,” John Hopkins Special Reports: Prescription Drugs, John Hopkins Health Alerts. Posted on April 13, 2010. Accessed March 23, 2012. Data retrieved from http://www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com/reports/prescription_drugs/3363-1.html?type=pf.
  2. “Florida’s Fight Against Prescription Drug Abuse,” National Public Radio. Transcript on January 25, 2012. Accessed March 23, 2012. Data retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/01/25/145847979/floridas-fight-against-prescription-drug-abuse.
  3. Jeff Don, Martha Mendoza and Justin Pritchard, Associated Press, “AP: Drugs found in drinking water,” USA Today. Updated on September 12, 2008. Accessed March 23, 2012. Data retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-03-10-drugs-tap-water_N.htm.
  4. “Prescription Drug Abuse,” The White House. Accessed March 23, 2012. Data retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/prescription-drug-abuse.