February 22, 2023

Alcohol and prescription opioids are the most common sources of substance abuse disorder among seniors, says Mohammad Alhabbal, M.D., medical director of AdCare Hospital in Worcester, Mass. “It’s problematic and we see it on a daily basis.”

As people age, they often take multiple medications for a range of ailments, notes Dr. Alhabbal. Managing pain, whether due to longstanding ailments or a recent fall, can lead to addiction.

It’s easy for families to miss signs that a parent or grandparent is at risk. Front-line medical providers may focus on an older patient’s anxiety or depression without exploring the possible role of substance misuse.  Also, primary-care physicians sometimes struggle to distinguish between common health problems that afflict aging adults (poor balance, loss of core muscle strength, mood disorders, memory decline, etc.) and symptoms of substance abuse.

“Education is essential,” says Dr. Alhabbal, who cites red flags such as:

  • changes in baseline behavior, like a decline in personal hygiene
  • repeatedly missing appointments
  • requesting renewals on prescription pain meds earlier than needed and
  • insisting on renewal of one pain medication instead of considering alternatives.

Moreover, don’t assume that seniors who have a history of managing their alcohol or drug intake are home free in their golden years.  Read more in MarketWatch Retirement Weekly.