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Addiction Rehab for Seniors

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Historically, young adults have presented with higher rates of substance abuse and have made up a larger demographic at treatment centers than older adults.1 However, substance abuse in seniors is often overlooked, underreported, and undertreated.2

Finding the right rehab center is one of the first steps in the treatment process for people of any age. Older adults may seek rehab facilities that cater to their population for many reasons, such as around-the-clock care for medical conditions and greater social connections with like-minded people. Seniors may feel more comfortable living with people their own age who are experiencing similar issues. Understanding the services that treatment centers provide to elderly patients will be vital in choosing the right rehab facility.

Here, we will provide information about addiction in older adults and seniors, warning signs to be aware of, and various aspects of addiction treatment for older adults, including rehab for seniors.


Addiction in Older Adults and Seniors

Nearly one million adults 65 and older struggle with a substance use disorder (SUD).3 Nearly half of those who experience a substance use disorder also suffer with co-occurring mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders.4 Adults 65 and older may also be faced with declining health, retirement, subsequent loss of income, and the use of multiple daily medications or polypharmacy and its side effects.3

The prevalence of SUD among baby boomers (those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s) has remained high for some time, possibly because of the changing and more liberated attitudes toward drug and alcohol use during that time.1

Substance use among older adults was at an all-time high in 2020 with 4.4 million older Americans in need of substance abuse treatment, up from 1.7 million people in 2001.5

There tends to be a false belief among providers and the general public that older adults don’t suffer from, or need treatment for, substance abuse. While it is true that SUD affects young people at higher rates, it does not discount the fact that millions of older adults also struggle with addiction.6 As such, it is often overlooked and undertreated among older Americans.2

There are additional risk factors that older adults suffer from that may increase their rates of addiction later in life. Issues like chronic pain, (involuntary) retirement, loss of a spouse, current prescription medications for health issues, a history of substance use, and dwindling social interactions are all risk factors in older adults.2

Older adults are most likely to misuse alcohol than any other substance.2 Not only is alcohol harder to metabolize as people age, the blood-brain permeability and sensitivity to alcohol increases as well, resulting in heightened impairment.1

In addition, illicit drug use is more prevalent in older adults in the U.S. than in almost any other country, and there are no safe levels of illicit drug use among older adults.1


Signs of Addiction in the Elderly Population

The aging adult population often contends with health issues that can mask signs of drug and alcohol use. Some older adults may be taking medications such as sedatives, opioids for chronic pain, insulin, or medications for blood pressure and heart problems.7 Certain side effects of medications and various drug interactions can cause symptoms that mimic or exacerbate substance use, including cognitive impairment, mood disorders, impaired judgment, and a lack of coordination or reaction time.3

There are warning signs to be aware of if you suspect an aging loved one might be misusing drugs or alcohol. Falls, bruises, burns, dizziness, disorientation, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, mood swings, worsening financial problems, and difficulty making decisions can signal potential substance misuse or abuse.1


Addiction Treatment for Seniors

Traditionally, older adults are less likely to be screened for substance use disorders.1 The stigma associated with substance abuse as well as patients underreporting how much they use when talking to their doctor can make it more difficult to diagnose.1 Older adults may also consider certain substances like alcohol to be their “one last pleasure” and lack the motivation to reduce their alcohol or drug use if they are worried about the quality or length of their future.1 A lifetime habit of alcohol use can certainly progress and become problematic as people age, sometimes without them realizing it right away.

Rehab for senior citizens can be especially beneficial. A thorough assessment will be done at the beginning of the treatment process and will help each person develop an individualized treatment plan to meet their unique needs. Some screening tools are adapted specifically for older adults and studies have found interview screenings that are less intrusive than laboratory testing may work better for older adults.1

Addiction treatment can range from early intervention to medically managed intensive inpatient treatment. The continuum of care put forth by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) primarily falls across 4 levels of care after prevention/early intervention.8

Within those levels of care, there are varying degrees of services available to meet each person’s needs.8 However, the first step in any treatment program will be for an individual to detox from the substance they are misusing. It is especially important that older adults are under medical supervision during the detoxification process. Medically assisted detox provides around-the-clock care to help monitor vitals and manage severe symptoms of withdrawal.9 Alcohol, which is one of the most commonly abused substances by older adults, can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms ranging from anxiety and agitation to life-threatening hallucinations, seizures, and delirium tremens (DTs).9

Older adults who may be experiencing social isolation, depression, or anxiety can address those issues in treatment at senior rehab facilities. Senior rehabs may utilize non-confrontational approaches to help build self-esteem and develop social networks as well as skills to cope with loss and physical health issues.5

Since addiction treatment is designed to fit the individual needs of each person, the duration of treatment can vary widely between individuals. Remaining in treatment for the appropriate length of time is crucial to a person’s success at long-term recovery.10

Short-term residential treatment typically lasts 3–6 weeks, while long-term residential treatment can last 6–12 months.11 Older adults tend to have greater success with longer treatment durations.3 However, it is important to remember that any amount of treatment is better than none.

Ideal models of treatment for aging adults include the management of other chronic health conditions and co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.3 Behavioral therapies and medications have also been proven effective in addiction treatment for older adults.3

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people identify negative thought patterns and subsequent behaviors and emphasizes developing and implementing healthy coping strategies to deal with stress and other various triggers that may arise.12 Family counseling and peer support groups are also beneficial.10

Dual Diagnosis

The terms dual diagnosis and co-occurring disorder are sometimes used interchangeably.13 Dual diagnosis refers to a person who has a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder. For instance, if someone has depression and they are addicted to alcohol, those are co-occurring disorders.13

Co-occurring disorders also tend to have overlapping symptoms, and the effects of one condition often exacerbate the other.13 For instance, if a person suffers from depression and continues to drink heavily, alcohol (a depressant) will worsen the symptoms of their depression. The best treatment for dual diagnoses that involve mental health issues and substance use disorders is an integrated intervention where both issues are addressed during treatment.13

There is evidence of a high correlation between alcohol use and depression among older adult populations and the co-occurrence of both depression and alcohol use disorder can complicate diagnosis and treatment.1 Older adults may also take more prescription drugs and are therefore more at risk of misuse and abuse of prescription medications.1


Aftercare Programs for Seniors

Aftercare programs, sometimes called continuing care, help keep people engaged in their recovery after they complete a traditional treatment program.10 Peer support groups, 12-Step programs, and continued behavioral therapy (with individual and/or group sessions) can help individuals maintain abstinence and strengthen their relapse prevention skills and coping strategies.10 Peer support and 12-Step meetings can also provide people in recovery with a sense of connection to others and their community. Older adults may choose to participate in a seniors-only group to alleviate loneliness and enhance motivation.


Find a Senior Rehab Near Me

Recovery from addiction is possible at any age. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment and recovery, but rehab can help facilitate long-term change by providing behavioral therapy and medication-assisted treatment.3 Rehab also helps re-build social support networks, a vital component to sustained recovery.3 To check the coverage offered by your specific health insurance provider verify your insurance now. To find the right treatment option, review our directory of rehab centers or call

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Jennifer Fifield is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert for drugabuse.com and recovery.org. She holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast Journalism and a master’s degree in Health Promotion Management. Jennifer has served as a content editor on numerous articles, web pages, and blog posts within the medical, dental, and vision industry. She has 15+ years of experience in higher education including writing/editing, administrative, and teaching positions within the health/wellness, accreditation, and health communications areas.
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