Deaths among young adults are used to illustrate the tragedy of the opioid epidemic, but addiction to these powerful pain relievers and the problems they create are as prevalent in seniors. Not all recovery programs, however, are prepared to meet the unique physical and psychosocial needs of older adults and with a growing population of Americans over 60, the time has come to take a closer look at how age affects both addiction and treatment.


Addiction in the Older Generation

The pathway to addiction is similar for all age groups, but seniors face additional risks. Social factors contributing to opiate abuse such as increased isolation and the death of a spouse increase, while the physical signs of drug dependency become harder to detect. Symptoms that suggest someone may have an opiate addiction, such as changes in mood, impaired memory and tremor, are often chalked up to age, and because the older body metabolizes drugs more slowly, the amount of opiate needed to produce unwanted effects is smaller and less suspicious to family and friends.


Seniors also tend to have preexisting conditions that can be made worse with opiates, and some take medications that magnify their side effects. Separating the symptoms of illness, age and polypharmacy from the effects of opioids is challenging for both addiction detection and treatment.


Addiction Treatment in Older Adults

From pharmacological therapy and behavioral approaches to the general treatment environment and sensory concerns, the best addiction recovery programs for seniors are necessarily geared toward meeting their unique needs. Doctors are trained to address dependency in medically-complex older adults, and they understand how to best apply pharmacological therapies. Behavioral counseling is individualized or offered in small groups where less sensory input enhances focus, and therapeutic approaches respect clients’ learning needs and extensive life experiences.


Physically, the majority of seniors have some impairment in vision and hearing. Written materials should feature larger print, and speakers must adapt their tone and volume. To accommodate older adults with limited mobility, treatment centers for seniors are adaptive equipment-friendly, and most provide physical assistance when necessary.


Seniors struggling with addiction need support. Some are embarrassed to admit they have a problem, while others fear managing chronic pain without drugs. The good news is that with an age-sensitive approach, successful treatment is possible.