Substance Abuse in Seniors

seniors rehab

Substance abuse among seniors (adults over the age of 60), particularly of alcohol and prescription drugs, is one of the fastest-growing health problems in the U.S. Because this age group is often associated with a general decline in overall health, it can be difficult to notice or diagnose addiction issues. 

The “senior” age group consists of more than 43 million people in the U.S. alone. Seeking and accepting help for addiction issues is shrouded in stigma for many people, and that is especially true of the senior age bracket. The embarrassment of late-onset addiction or mental health concerns at this stage in life cannot be overstated for many seniors. The thought of being in a treatment setting with significantly younger adults also represents a less than optimal recovery situation. 

Like many age groups, seniors have proven to be more comfortable, have better participation, and relate better when sharing treatment with peers in a similar demographic. However, older adults may need specialized treatment and additional resources to help overcome addiction. Through seniors rehab programs, they can find the help they need to overcome drug or alcohol addiction. 

Differences in Substance Abuse for Seniors

While generally drug use declines after young adulthood, nearly 1 million seniors struggle with some form of substance abuse disorder. Additionally, since 2000, the number of seniors admitted to substance abuse treatment has doubled from 3.5% to 7%.  

The Aging Brain

While there is little research on addiction tendencies in seniors, there are theories that suggest aging could lead to social and physiological changes that may increase the likelihood of developing an addiction. While little is known about the effects of substances on an aging brain, older adults typically metabolize them more slowly. Thus, their brains can be more sensitive to the effects of drugs and alcohol. 

Some studies suggest that drug use in early life (age 18 to 35) can accelerate the age-related decline of the temporal lobes. This can make someone more vulnerable to the adverse consequences of drug use as a senior.

Secondary Health Issues

Because seniors are more likely to experience secondary health issues (lung and heart problems, memory issues, or mood disorders), they’re also more susceptible to the negative health effects of substance use. Additionally, the effects of some substances (impaired judgment, reaction time, or coordination) can result in dangerous accidents such as falls or vehicle crashes. These health risks pose a significantly more dangerous hazard to senior citizens and result in a longer recovery time than younger counterparts.    

Life Challenges

While each stage of life presents challenges, older adults often experience more obstacles to satisfaction than the younger generation. Seniors are more likely to experience declining health, grief, loss of a loved one, social isolation, family conflict, or financial loss, and each of these stimuli can make someone more likely to creep towards addiction. Loneliness and isolation place seniors at high risk for emotional distress, physical discomfort, substance abuse, depression, despair, and suicide. 

To further complicate matters, older adults may be prescribed a myriad of medications that when mixed with alcohol or street drugs can have lethal consequences.

Prescription Medication Abuse by Seniors

Often as a normal part of aging, bodies begin to deteriorate. With this, seniors potentially need more medications such as pain-killers and antiinflammatories. Thus, seniors are often prescribed more medications than other age groups and have the potential for more exposure to habit-forming substances. 

seniors rehab

Studies show that seniors are more likely to mix medications, forget their appropriate dose or mislabel prescribed meds. As many as 80% of seniors take at least one prescription medication, and as many as half take at least five. This puts seniors at serious risk for harmful medication interaction and increases the need for careful medication management. 

Other risks associated with this age group include accidental misuse of prescription drugs, and possible worsening of existing mental health issues. For example, a 2019 study of patients over the age of 50 noted that more than 25% who misuse prescription opioids or benzodiazepines expressed suicidal ideation. This is compared with 2% who do not use them, reinforcing the need for careful screening before prescribing these medications.

Other Substances Commonly Abused by Seniors

Seniors abuse a wide variety of substances besides prescription medication.


Alcohol is the most used/abused substance among seniors. About 65% of people over the age of 65 reported “high risk” drinking (defined as exceeding daily guidelines) at least once a year. In addition, nearly 10% of seniors report binge drinking (five or more drinks in one occasion). Research shows that harmful drinking behaviors are increasing faster among seniors than in any other age group. 

Most seniors seeking help for a substance abuse disorder abuse alcohol. Since 2001, the U.S. has reported a 105% increase in seniors seeking rehab for alcohol abuse. Family and friends must not overlook the possibility of someone developing an addiction simply because they are older. 


Because seniors are most likely to have painful health issues, they’re more likely to be prescribed opioids such as hydrocodone. Often, someone abusing an opioid may find themselves seeking out heroin, a “harder,” cheaper alternative to opioids.


The number of seniors using marijuana (prescription or recreationally) has almost tripled since 2015. While not as habit-forming as opioids, marijuana is still slightly addictive and hinders users’ judgment. As medicinal marijuana use becomes more widely acceptable, more seniors will find themselves at the potential risk of addiction. 


About 10 out of 100 people over the age of 65 smoke cigarettes or use other products that contain nicotine. Research suggests that older smokers have a significantly higher chance of developing severe complications such as heart or lung disease. Even at age 65, most people who quit smoking will add an average of three to five years to their lifespan. 

Seniors Rehab for Addiction

Regardless of a patient’s age, recovery from addiction involves treatment for both physical and psychological dependence. 


Depending on the severity and length of the addiction, detox can be significantly more necessary in older adults. Detox is extremely important to mitigate the physical symptoms of addiction and withdrawal. It must be completed before a patient can begin treatment for the psychological side of recovery. 

At Harmony Ridge Recovery, we incorporate a structured and supervised detox program tailored to the struggles of each patient. The time it takes to detox will depend on the specific person and the nature of the substance(s) being abused. When dealing with addiction in older adults, it is even more important to monitor physical health throughout the process. 


Once an older patient has successfully completed a detox program, they can safely begin the psychotherapy portion of the recovery.  This portion will primarily include one-on-one work with addiction specialists as well as group therapy. They may also participate in a “12-step program” such as Alcoholics Anonymous.  

Like traditional rehab, seniors rehab centers will cater to the needs of each individual patient. While one may benefit more from individual counseling, others may find the camaraderie and accountability of a group setting more effective. 

We try to involve not only the patient in therapy, but the person’s family and other loved ones, too. Family therapy, in conjunction with individual and group therapy, helps form a solid foundation for addiction treatment. 

Treatment Options for Seniors

Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment

When you or a loved one are ready to seek help for an addiction problem, you’ll first need to decide the appropriate rehab setting. Our trained staff is available to help you make the tough calls to set you on the right track. While there are benefits to every type of rehab, consider all the factors involved so you can receive the best level of care. Seniors, perhaps more than any other demographic, need to feel comfortable with their surroundings to get the most out of a rehab program. At Harmony Ridge, we are committed to helping patients of all ages find their rehab “comfort zone.”

seniors rehab

At Harmony Ridge, we have several care-level options at our disposal, including inpatient and outpatient programs. Our inpatient program provides 24-hour supervision and programming and is an excellent option for patients who may require a more significant level of care. Patients in an inpatient seniors rehab program will see all their needs (meals, recreation, therapy) attended to. They’ll find that the comfort of our patients is our highest priority. 

Our outpatient program will provide the flexibility that many seniors crave. It will enable them to continue about their “normal life” while still receiving the professional help they deserve. Those in our outpatient program will have the ability to customize treatment around their schedule while still receiving top-of-the-line care. Most who choose this will attend programs for as many as five to eight hours a day, three to five days a week. This option is excellent for patients who perhaps do not require the level of detox and around-the-clock care of our inpatient programs. 

Start Your Treatment Journey at Harmony Ridge Today! 

At Harmony Ridge, our track record speaks for itself. We are committed to treating every patient with care, compassion and a personal touch. We value the privacy and routine of all of our patients, and particularly our seniors. Our beautiful campus has licensed professionals who are ready to make a treatment plan for you or your loved one. Contact us today and let us help you get your life back!