Comprehensive Overview of Prescription Medication Abuse and Addiction Among Seniors

If you are an adult child with a mother or father in his or her Golden Years, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether or not your parent may be suffering from abuse or addiction to prescription medication (or medications). This article is designed to present you with some basic information in regard to substance use disorder, including prescription medication abuse and addiction, among seniors.

Incidence of Substance Use Disorder Among Seniors

Drug abuse and addiction usually are associated with younger and middle-aged individuals. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug abuse and addiction are on the rise among people 65 years of age and older. This rate of increase has been ongoing for over the past 10 years. No slowdown of the increase is seen in the foreseeable future. 

According to data from the CDC, somewhere between 3.4 percent and 7 percent of women and men over the age of 65 have a substance use disorder. Pinning down an exact percentage is impossible because senior substance use disorder remains a highly hidden health issue. The reality is that many adult children of seniors wonder if their parents are laboring from substance use disorder, wondering if their mothers or fathers are having an issue with abuse of or addiction to pharmaceuticals. 

Nine Symptoms Your Senior Parent May Have an Issue With Pharmaceutical Abuse or Addiction

As mentioned a couple of times in this article, you may be seeking guidance in determining whether or not your senior mother or father may have an issue in regard to abusing or being addicted to prescription medication (or medications). There are nine key signs that your aging parent might be abusing or addicted to pharmaceuticals. These are:

  • Mood swings
  • Constant irritability
  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Dramatic weight loss or gain
  • Money troubles
  • Stealing or lying
  • Poor decision making
  • Memory issues
  • Increased alcohol use

Mood Swings

Individuals, including seniors, who have an abuse issue or are addicted to prescription drugs tend to experience what fairly can be described as significant or drastic mood swings. These mood swings can cycle throughout the course of any given day. When a senior is actively under the influence of a pharmaceutical they are abusing or addicted to, he or she will often appear to be very happy and satisfied with life. On the other hand, as the drug wears off, a person will experience a sharp mood swing in the other direction. A person experiencing that type of mood swing may appear depressed or even angry. 

Constant Irritability

Older individuals who abuse prescription drugs have a significant focus on using the drug of choice and on finding more. They can become highly agitated when prescription drugs are not available at the moment.

People who are struggling to get their prescription med of choice will often:

  • Lash out at those around them
  • Blame others for their bad mood
  • Exhibit hostility towards anyone who tries to calm them down

If your senior parent seems like he or she is on edge all the time, prescription drug abuse or addiction could be the cause.

Irregular Sleep Patterns

Abuse of or addiction to prescription drugs can wreak havoc on an older person’s sleep patterns. People who abuse or are addicted to prescription meds may struggle to fall asleep at night. In turn, they may then sleep all day.

Some people will completely skip sleeping on certain days when they use high doses of prescription drugs. The drugs will make it impossible for their bodies and minds to get the necessary rest. 

This often causes them to turn to other prescription drugs designed to help them fall asleep. It can lead to them getting stuck in a vicious cycle of abuse or addiction to multiple medications.

Dramatic Weight Loss or Gain

If your parent has lost or gained a significant amount of weight in a short time, this can be indicative of abuse of or addiction to pharmaceuticals. Dramatic weight loss or gain is a fluctuation up or down of approximately 20 pounds in a two-week period of time.

You do need to bear in mind that drastic weight loss might also be a symptom of some disease or medical condition. Therefore, when significant weight loss or gain occurs in regard to an older individual, scheduling an appointment with a doctor is necessary.

Money Troubles

A prescription drug habit can take a toll on more than just an older individual’s physical and mental well-being. Abuse of pharmaceuticals can end up costing a good deal of money. A person who is struggling with prescription drug abuse or addiction is very likely to have money troubles. 

Stealing or Lying

Someone who is dealing with prescription drug abuse or addiction, including your parent (if that is what is going on) will do just about anything to make certain they have access to their drug of choice. That very well might include doctor shopping (to get multiple prescriptions of a medication of choice, stealing prescription drugs from someone else, or even stealing things that can be sold to get more money to purchase a drug (or drugs) of choice.

Lying can also be a sign that an older individual is laboring under prescription drug abuse or addiction. For example, such an individual may lie about the need to borrow money. Very simply, they may lie about misusing or abusing pharmaceuticals. 

Poor Decision Making

An early red flag that may have left you wondering if something is amiss in regard to your parent is your mother or father exhibiting what seems to be poor decision-making. The medical reality is, when an individual abuse or is addicted to pharmaceuticals, the functioning of his or her brain is impacted. An older individual in such a position tends to make poor decisions in regard to multiple, if not all, aspects of his or her life. 

Memory Issues

There is a variety of different prescription medications that can cause an older person’s memory to fade. From anti-anxiety medications like Xanax to narcotics like Vicodin, these prescriptions will make some people significantly forgetful. With that said, memory problems can also be a sign of a medical condition like dementia. When rather sudden and noticeable memory loss occurs, a consultation with a doctor is a must. 

Increased Alcohol Use

You very well may have heard that people who abuse alcohol are more likely to abuse prescription medications. What you may now have known is that the reverse is also a possibility. Many people who abuse or are addicted to prescription drugs will end up abusing alcohol. Therefore, if you have noticed your parent drinking more, that might be a sign of pharmaceutical abuse or addiction. 

Having said that, abuse of or addiction to alcohol is a serious problem in and of itself. In addition, mixing prescription medications and alcohol can prove to be a very dangerous and even deadly combination.

Nine Symptoms Your Senior Parent May Have an Issue With Pharmaceutical Abuse or Addiction

There is a myriad of different types of long-term effects of substance use disorder on seniors. The seriousness of some of these conditions (or the aggravation of preexisting conditions) underscores the necessity of attempting to obtain suitable substance use disorder assistance and treatment for a parent afflicted by pharmaceutical abuse or addiction. Examples of some of the most commonplace long-term health issues associated with substance use disorder include:

  • Immune system disorders
  • Liver damage
  • Osteoporosis
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Ulcers
  • Memory loss 
  • Mood disorders

Terminal Medical Conditions and Use of Painkillers

If your parent has been diagnosed with a terminal medical condition that results in severe pain, many physicians recommend what might be called an aggressive approach to the use of painkilling prescription medications. At the other extreme are healthcare providers who worry about addiction in this type of situation. 

The stark reality may be that if a patient is terminally ill and in truly irretractable pain, pain medication may be the only source of relief available. For this reason, it is imperative to understand the difference between addiction and physiologic (or physical) dependence on medication. 

A considerable number of physicians recommend a more flexible approach to the use of pain medications in situations involving a terminally ill patient in a considerable degree of pain. There have been suggested alterations to standards of care that would require healthcare providers to evaluate pain control much as they would the patient’s other vital signs. This is why you may see the use of rating scales for pain in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and other locations.

Having mentioned this, it is also important to note that this paradigm of pain management has become the subject of controversy as a result of the opioid pandemic and the role Purdue Pharma and Sackler family (that owned Purdue Pharma) played in the widespread abuse of their medication Oxycontin. In the end, Purdue Pharma urged the development of the aforementioned pain rating scales as a tool to sell more Oxycontin.

Nonetheless, there are respected medical professionals who do believe that if a person is terminally ill and in intense pain, an aggressive approach to managing that pain using pharmaceuticals is an accepted course of action. 

Alternatives to Pharmaceuticals

Finally, if you have concerns that your aging parent may be abusing or even addicted to pharmaceuticals, inquiring with your parent’s doctor about alternative therapies is advisable. There may be some sort of course of treatment for what a medication has been prescribed that does not involve the use of a potentially addictive drug. The possibility exists that a transition plan can be developed to move your parent away from a potentially (or actually) addictive pharmaceutical to another course of equally effective treatment.