When asked to physically describe the typical drug addict, a person probably would not assign their perpetrator grey hair, wrinkles, and glasses, yet evidence supporting the image of an elderly addict is mounting.

Think about this statistic: According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2008, the number of people who were 50 years of age and older who requested help for substance abuse was, 231,200. When compared with the 1992 figure of only 102,700 people, this increase is staggering.

And this is just the number of people who have sought out treatment, it does not account for those people who are addicted and do not get help.

There is a huge potential for prescription drug abuse among the elderly segment of the population—which is growing by the day thanks to an aging population of Baby Boomers. In fact, it has been estimated that the number of prescription drug abusers over the age of 50 may reach 2.7 million by the year 2020.

Dangerous Drug Duo

Prescription drug abuse among the elderly is also partly fueled by the fact that an aging person is more prone to having an illness that demands some of the most addicting categories of drug to manage it.

Opioids and Benzodiazepines are among the most potentially addicting classes of prescription medication.

  • Opioids like Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxy Contin are all forms of pain medication. The primary function of these drugs is to disrupt the biological processes that lead to the feeling of pain. When taken as prescribed by a doctor, Opioids can successfully mitigate pain. However, if a person takes opioids for an extended period of time they may become dependent on the drug and will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking it.
  • Benzodiazepines like Ativan, Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin essentially reduce activity in the brain so that a patient is less anxious, can sleep better, or is not as affected by an upsetting circumstance. As is the case with Opioids, Benzodiazepines should only ever be taken in the dosages prescribed by a doctor. If their doses are not properly managed, a person may develop a tolerance for a Benzodiazepine. This tolerance means that withdrawal symptoms will likely be experienced if a person ceases their use of this drug.

What this means for caregivers

You must be vigilant.

Elders are more prone to becoming addicted to prescription medications because their bodies cannot process drugs as efficiently as a younger person's, and because they are often prescribed some of the most addicting drugs available.

If an elder is getting prescriptions for the same medication from different doctors, or getting prescriptions for the same medication filled by different pharmacies, warning bells should be going off in your mind.

If you suspect that an elder you are caring for may have a developed an addiction to prescription drugs, don't ignore the problem.