Baby boomers are retiring. One of the largest and most prosperous generations have been approaching or entering retirement age, and the number of seniors (50+) with substance use disorder (SUD) is expected to reach 5.7 million in 2020. Alcohol, opioid drugs (painkillers), and benzodiazepines are the most commonly used drugs, all of which can present serious difficulties during withdrawal if not managed by medical professionals.
Senior Citizens are likely to face a number of difficulties when dealing with substance use disorder. Declining health, retirement, and increased isolation can converge, creating an environment in which addiction and mental illness can thrive. Additionally, there is a tendency in western medicine to overprescribe medications for senior citizens which also contributes to addiction and substance abuse in this age demographic.
To see exactly how prevalent drug and alcohol use is in the elderly population, let’s take a look at some statistics:
It may not always be easy to tell when someone is experiencing withdrawal from drugs. It’s not uncommon for people who are suffering from substance use disorder to hide their addiction and the symptoms of their withdrawal. Signs of abuse or drug withdrawal for senior citizens could include:
“Lost” Medication or Signs of Prescription Mismanagement: It can be common for seniors to misuse their medications. This may not always be intentional, but if someone claims they have lost their medication, can’t find certain medications, ran out of medication, or claims they were shorted medication these could be a sign of prescription mismanagement. For example, someone who is abusing painkillers may claim they lost their medications in an attempt to secure more than they were prescribed. Desperate or unreasonable attempts, such as doctor shopping, to get more medications could be signs of both drug abuse or withdrawal.
Confusion or a Detachment from Reality: A senior citizen suffering from withdrawal, especially in withdrawal from alcohol and benzos. Withdrawal can result in hallucinations (visual, auditory, and tactile), confusion, and abnormal body sensations are all signs of withdrawal and could indicate the need for medical intervention.
Abnormal or Prolonged Illness: Withdrawal from alcohol and drugs – especially opiates – can produce flu-like symptoms. If someone has been sick for a long period of time, or if they get sick at fairly regular intervals that could be a sign of withdrawal or an indication that they have a substance use disorder.
Missing Social Engagements or Distant Behavior: People in withdrawal may choose to isolate to hide their symptoms. If someone you know is missing social events or is self-isolating this could be a sign of drug abuse and/or withdrawal. Not answering calls, missing family functions, and reclusive behavior changes could be a sign of withdrawal.
Changes in Mental Health: Among the many symptoms of withdrawal, mental symptoms are very common across all drug types and ages. These symptoms may be present before withdrawal, or they may present themselves as symptoms of withdrawal. These signs of withdrawal could be:
In terms of physical withdrawal symptoms, the type of drug and the extent of the abuse will play a major role in the severity of withdrawal. To some extent, withdrawal symptoms are unavoidable, but they can be managed with support. Medical intervention can mitigate symptoms, and careful observation can help ensure safety in the detoxification process.
Despite the dangers, withdrawal can be treated. When the detox process is overseen by medical professionals that chances of safe detox and lasting recovery dramatically improve.The most commonly used drugs for senior citizens and their withdrawal symptoms are listed here:
Opiate Painkillers: Older adults are increasingly abusing opioid painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and Dilaudid (hydromorphone). Many older adults are prescribed these medications to treat pain, but they are highly addictive, especially in older individuals with a slowed metabolism, and can be misused, leading to severe withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal from opiates is typically very uncomfortable, and it can be dangerous and deadly in some cases. Extreme sensitivity to pain, joint/muscle pain, flu-like symptoms, and headaches are common. The most dangerous symptoms are increased blood pressure, vomiting, and diarrhea (risk of dehydration). Seniors are especially at risk. Depending on the severity of the addiction, there are FDA-approved drugs that can be used to treat opiate withdrawal.
Alcohol: Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly! It is always recommended to seek professional care when detoxing from alcohol. Besides profuse sweating, nausea, and insomnia, alcohol withdrawal can lead to seizures and delirium tremens – both of which can be deadly if untreated. There are FDA-approved medications for treating alcohol withdrawal, and alcohol detox can be done safely with the help of medical professionals.
Benzodiazepines and Other Sedatives: Withdrawal from these drugs can be deadly. Benzodiazepines (benzos) are frequently prescribed to older adults for anxiety and sleep disorders. Older people can quickly become addicted to and physically dependent on benzos. As we age, we tend to have less lean muscle, a slower metabolism, and more body fat. This affects older people who use benzos both because of their fat-solubility and slowed metabolism. This can make detox especially troublesome. These withdrawal syndromes affect the body much like alcohol will, although in a less severe manner, and many side effects are similar. Headache, insomnia, nausea, shaking, loss of appetite are all common during benzo withdrawal. The most dangerous symptoms would be increased blood pressure and seizures.
Selecting the right detox center is a critical phase in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Detox centers should have the medical staff to properly oversee the detoxification process, which could take up to a week or longer depending on the person. Detox centers will also have psychiatric staff who will monitor and address the mental symptoms of withdrawal. Outside of these critical elements, there are specific things to look for in a senior citizen detox center:
The range and type of service offered will vary from facility to facility. There are 3 basic types of drug detox centers:
—Medical Detox: Medical detox facilities will specialize in overseeing the entire detoxification process. Medical and psychiatric staff will each play a major role in treating the symptoms of withdrawal and establishing care. The length of stay in a medical detox facility will depend on the person but can commonly range from 5-10 days for seniors.
—Inpatient Detox: Inpatient facilities are “live-in” facilities that will offer 24/7 medical care and observation, as well as psychiatric support and therapy. These detox facilities will offer programs to treat the entire person, all in a residential-style environment. Stays at inpatient facilities will typically last 7-14 days.
—Outpatient Detox: Outpatient detox facilities will offer the same high level of care but in an outpatient environment. These facilities are ideal for seniors who have a strong network outside of treatment but still require medical and psychiatric care.
You are not alone! There are many resources dedicated to senior citizens available. Just a few of these include:
If you are seeking drug and alcohol related addiction rehab for yourself or a loved one, the sponsored hotline is a confidential and convenient solution.
Calls to any sponsored hotline (non-facility) will be answered by:
If you wish to contact a specific medical detox center then find a specific detox center using our detox locator tool.
Alternatives to finding addiction treatment or learning about substance abuse:
To learn more about how Detox Local operates, please contact us.