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How to Tell the Difference Between Prescription Drug Abuse and Misuse

Many older adults take multiple medications daily to manage various health conditions. For instance, a loved one might take a beta blocker to control high blood pressure or a pain reliever for arthritis. Typically, these medications are used responsibly and contribute to a healthier, higher quality of life. However, there is an alarming rise in the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs among seniors, leading to dependency and addiction.

Recognizing the Epidemic

It might seem unthinkable that your parent or grandparent could struggle with drug addiction, but evidence shows a growing number of seniors are developing dependencies on their medications. Determining the exact number of older adults affected is challenging because the signs of drug abuse often mimic the symptoms of aging. Nevertheless, the consensus is that the incidence of senior drug abuse has increased significantly over the last decade. By some estimates, up to 15 percent of seniors abuse prescription drugs, especially tranquilizers, painkillers, and sleep aids. Adding to this problem is the prevalence of alcohol abuse among older adults, with about 30 percent of individuals over 60 consuming more alcohol than is considered safe, particularly when combined with prescription medications.

Misuse vs. Abuse: Understanding the Difference

Consider this scenario: You visit your father and notice he complains of back pain and takes a pill. Later, he asks you to bring his nearly empty pill bottle, which was just filled last week and supposed to last a month. Concerned, you ask how often he takes these pills, and he admits to taking them three to four times a day, despite the instructions stating one pill daily. This situation may indicate misuse rather than abuse.


  • Definition: Taking medication in a way that is not prescribed, often due to ineffective treatment plans.

  • Examples: Taking more than the prescribed amount, using medication for conditions other than intended, or taking leftover antibiotics for a new infection.

  • Accidental Misuse: Seniors with cognitive impairments might accidentally take incorrect doses or multiple doses, deviating from their prescribed regimen.


  • Definition: Deliberately taking medication in higher quantities or more frequently than prescribed to experience euphoria or other pleasant sensations.

  • Characteristics: Abuse is a compulsive behavior where the individual cannot stop taking the drug despite harmful consequences.

Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse in Seniors

Identifying drug abuse in seniors can be challenging due to the overlap with normal aging symptoms. However, look for the following signs:

  • Apparent attempts to obtain more drugs, such as regularly changing doctors or pharmacies.

  • The appearance of more pill bottles than usual.

  • Reports of unexplained missing medication.

  • Increased isolation.

  • Marked changes in mood, appetite, and sleep habits.

  • Changes in mobility, including poor balance, difficulty walking, and frequent falls.

  • Conflicts with others, including family members, friends, and coworkers.

These signs might also indicate other health issues, such as infections, cognitive decline, depression, or anxiety. Regardless, it's crucial to act on these red flags to ensure your loved one receives the necessary care. Discussing the issue with them and collaborating with their physician can help address the problem and prevent serious consequences.

Preventing Misuse and Abuse

To combat the rising issue of prescription drug abuse among seniors, family members should maintain close contact with their aging loved ones and monitor their medication usage. Some strategies include:

  • Altering Care Plans: Work with healthcare providers to adjust medications as needed.

  • Medication Management: Use tools like pill organizers and medication reminders to help manage dosages accurately.

  • Controlling Access: Restrict access to certain medications to prevent misuse and abuse.

The increase in addiction issues among older adults highlights the importance of vigilance by family members. By staying informed and proactive, you can help ensure your loved ones remain safe and healthy well into their golden years.

For information about how AmoryCare can help your a loved one at home please contact us:

Phone: 908-854-3220

Fax: 908-854-3221

Service Areas:

Union County, NJ: Berkeley Heights, Summit, Linden, Scotch Plains, Westfield, Murray Hill, Plainfield, Mountainside, Garwood, Clark, New Providence, Elizabeth, Roselle Park, Winfield, Kenilworth, Vauxhall, Cranford, Springfield, Union, Fanwood.

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