Elderly man taking two pills

While adults over age 65 make up only 13% of the population, they make up 33% of prescription drug users. The sheer volume of med-use alone among seniors makes them more likely to struggle with medication abuse. In fact, alcohol and prescription drug abuse affects up to 17% of older adults. As National Safety Month wraps up, we’re taking a look at drug safety and the reality of medication abuse among seniors.

What is prescription drug abuse?                                                    

Prescription drug abuse refers to whenever a person does not take their prescription drugs as directed. This may mean that they take a larger dosage than they have been prescribed or that they mix their medicine with alcohol or other drugs. Misuse of prescription drugs can lead to addiction, harmful drug interactions, or an overdose.

Seniors are more susceptible to these problems in part because they take more medications, which makes them more likely to mix them up. Their bodies are also more prone to addiction. Aging slows down your liver’s ability to filter drugs, so older adults can become addicted on lower dosages than younger adults. Since many symptoms of medication abuse resemble symptoms of other medical disorders, doctors often overlook prescription drug abuse.

What should you look out for?

It’s not always easy to recognize a medication abuse problem, especially with seniors. These are a few common symptoms or behaviors to look out for:

  • Frequently requests refills of certain medications, particularly those known to be habit forming
  • Changes in behavior (e.g. lack of interest, being overly energetic, quick to anger)
  • Goes doctor shopping (i.e. moving from doctor to doctor to receive multiple prescriptions for the same medicine)
  • Takes more of a prescription than before or takes more than instructed
  • Thinks or talks often about medicine
  • Acts uncomfortable or defensive when you ask about medicine
  • Makes excuses for why she or he needs a medicine
  • Stores extra pills in her or his purse or pocket
  • Has been treated for alcohol, drug, or prescription drug abuse in the past

What should you do if you see it?

If you suspect that someone you know has a problem with prescription drug abuse, talk to the doctor who prescribed the medication about your concerns. The doctor can then determine if there is a problem and help the senior to understand the necessary treatment. There are also many mutual aid and self-help groups available and resources for finding local addiction groups.


It’s predicted that the number of adults over 50 with a drug abuse or addiction problem will double by 2020. While the problem is real and growing, help is available to anyone who needs it. If you know what to watch out for, you can be that help when the time comes.