Many older adults take at least a few medications every day. Perhaps it's a beta-blocker to help control blood pressure, or maybe a pain reliever to help reduce the aches and stiffness of arthritis. In most cases, these drugs are used responsibly and help aging individuals live longer, healthier lives.

However, there is a growing epidemic of older adults who are misusing, abusing, and even becoming addicted to prescription drugs. It might seem unbelievable that your grandma, with her white hair and killer chocolate chip cookie recipe, would be a drug addict, but there is growing evidence of seniors with prescription drug addictions.

Since many of the signs of drug abuse mirror the symptoms of aging itself, many doctors note that determining the exact number of older drug addicts is difficult, but say that the numbers have risen sharply over the last decade. By some accounts, as many as 15 percent of older people abuse prescription drugs, particularly tranquilizers, painkillers and sleep aids. Additionally, alcohol abuse is also common among older people, with about 30 percent of individuals over 60 drinking more alcohol than is considered healthy, especially when combined with common prescription medications.

Unfortunately, because many family members are unaware of the potential for substance abuse in their older relatives, or simply assume that their loved ones are using drugs appropriately, it often goes undetected (or even ignored) until the problem becomes severe. That's why it's important to understand the signs of a substance abuse problem among the aging, and know when it's time to seek help from professionals experienced in elderly substance abuse issues.

Misuse and abuse: What's the difference?

Picture this: You stop by for a short visit with your dad. When you arrive, he takes a pill, complaining of some back pain. As you're leaving, he asks you to bring him the pill bottle so he can take another. You notice that the prescription you just filled last week, which was supposed to last a month, is almost empty. Concerned, you ask your dad how often he takes the pills, and he says three to four times per day, even though the prescription says to only take one each day. He says that they aren't providing any relief unless he takes more.

In this case, you might be concerned that Dad is abusing his painkillers, but it's actually more likely that he is misusing them. Misuse is more common — but no less dangerous — than abuse. Many older adults take more than the prescribed amount of their medications, or take it in ways other than prescribed because the treatment plan is not working effectively. Some people also take medications to help certain conditions even though they were prescribed for others; for example, taking leftover antibiotics when they suspect they have a sinus infection. In any case, this is medication misuse, not abuse, because the drugs aren't being used properly.

Drug abuse, on the other hand, is deliberately taking drugs (usually more than the prescribed amount more often than necessary) to experience euphoria or other pleasant sensations. This distinction is important because misuse can usually be handled with a visit to the doctor and an adjustment to the treatment plan. However, drug abuse is more difficult to control, since the drugs are being used compulsively. Quite simply, an addict cannot stop taking drugs even if the consequences are dire — and the use interferes with everyday life.

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Identifying drug issues

Again, because the signs of drug abuse are similar to changes associated with aging in general, it can be difficult to spot a drug problem. However, it's important to be on the lookout for signs like:

  • Apparent attempts to gain more drugs, such as regularly changing doctors or pharmacies
  • More pill bottles than usual or reports of unexplained missing medication
  • Increased isolation
  • Marked changes in mood, appetite, and/or sleep habits
  • Changes in mobility, including suddenly poor balance or difficulty walking
  • Conflicts with others, including family members or at work or volunteer positions

Again, many of these signs could be related to aging itself, or another issue, but if you notice them, it's important take action. Talking with your loved one about the issue, and notifying his or her physician, can help you get to the bottom of things and help avoid a more serious problem. Keeping an eye on medications, and even controlling access if necessary, can help prevent misuse as well.

The increase in addiction issues among older adults underscores the need for family members to stay in close contact with their aging loved ones, and carefully monitor their medication usage. By doing so, you can help keep them safe and healthy well into their golden years.