Opioid Addiction Among Seniors: Holistic Therapies Can Offer Alternative Solutions

As we age, it can feel like our only option for managing chronic pain is relying on prescription opioids. The problem, of course, is that these drugs are highly addictive. Fortunately, there are a number of holistic therapies that can help you navigate opioid addiction, and, once you’ve entered recovery, support you in managing your chronic pain.

Ellen started taking opioids to manage the pain that came with her rheumatoid arthritis. She’d managed to tough it out for years, but at 67, she was having a hard time even opening a drawer without pain, and she reached a point where she just couldn’t take it anymore.

Her story isn’t singular: she’s one of a growing number of people over 65 whose doctors have prescribed opioid drugs like OxyContin and Fentanyl for age-related pain management. The problem, of course, is that these drugs are highly addictive, and their use can (and does) lead to dependency. “There were about 40 million prescriptions for these drugs last year,” said Miriam Anderson of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, who spearheaded a report on the rising use of opioidsamong Medicare Part D recipients. “That’s enough to give one to every Medicare beneficiary in the country.”

Though opioids can be an effective way to control pain and prevent it from interfering with daily functioning, seniors are particularly at risk for addiction because they tend not to fit our cultural understandings of what it means to be an addict. That means their dependency could go unnoticed by family and friends, and even by well-meaning doctors seeking to ease the pain they live with on a daily basis. The opioid crisis affects us all, even those of us who seem to live outside of addiction stereotypes, and we’ll need to call these stereotypes into question if we’re going to expand our understanding of what addiction means and looks like.

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Alternative Solutions to Opioid Addiction

As we grow older, physical activity can increase muscle strength and decrease the likelihood of developing health problems. For many of us, however, physical activity is limited by injury or long-term illness, and that creates a certain susceptibility to prescription drug abuse. During these periods of reduced ability, it can feel like your only option is to rely on opioids to get you through the pain. Luckily, there are a number of holistic therapies offered by residential treatment programs, and they can help in two ways. During treatment, they can support you in overcoming your opioid use, and then, once you’ve established your recovery, they can help you manage your chronic pain from the inside out.


Cultivating mindfulness is one way that you can combat addiction as you age. It’s a practice designed to promote an awareness of your thoughts, sensations, and emotions objectively, without judgment. One study found that practicing mindfulness can increase the brain’s response to pleasurable activities and help reduce addiction cravings. “We can teach people to use mindfulness to appreciate and enjoy life more, and by doing that, they may feel less of a need for addictive drugs,” said Eric Garland, one of the researchers who headed the study. “It’s a powerful finding.” By promoting an unbiased awareness of your experiences—even the painful ones—you can learn to decrease your reliance on the opioids that relieve your pain.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

By isolating intensely emotional reactions, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) strives to help those who practice it accept that these reactions will inevitably occur, and then learn how to manage them. If you decide to try DBT, you’ll be encouraged to anticipate the situations that bring on your need to use—that way, you’ll be prepared to deal with them when they arise outside of treatment. The idea is simple: if you can predict these situations (and the reactions they create) in advance, you and your therapist can come up with a set of strategies to cope with them, and those strategies can be invaluable in keeping you from falling back into addiction when your pain levels are highest, and you’re at your most vulnerable.

Spiritual Exploration

Though some understandings of spirituality are connected to religion, a more holistic view of spirituality focuses on the meaning and purpose of our lives and the passions we cultivate as we explore them. Through meditation sessions and group lectures, treatment programs that offer spiritual exploration as a part of the recovery process can help you look past your addiction and focus on the deeper, more important facets of your life: the things that mean the most to you. It’s an idea supported by research, with one study in particular highlighting “the relationship between spiritual practices and long-term recovery from substance abuse.” According to this research, having the freedom to integrate a spiritual component into the treatment program made the recovery process more effective in the long-term—perhaps because it gave addicts in recovery something to fall back on in times of intense need.

Art Therapy

Though the benefits of talk therapy are pretty widely accepted, that doesn’t mean it fits everyone’s needs. Many who undergo treatment as part of their addiction program supplement it with art therapy, which can be a really meaningful way for them to express the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that led them to addiction. It’s a good alternative option for those who don’t respond to talk therapy—or for whom it just doesn’t work. For them, art therapy offers an alternative space in which they can process their feelings—and their pain.

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Coping Through Natural Healing

For most of us, managing pain as we age is a universal truth. Unfortunately, so is the willingness of doctors to prescribe opioids to manage that pain—despite the likelihood of dependence. If you’re struggling with opioid addiction, your struggle may be threefold: with your need to manage your pain, with the addiction itself, and with the cultural stereotypes that could be preventing you from getting the proper treatment. With the help of holistic therapies, a comprehensive residential treatmentprogram can help you navigate all of those things. Opioid addiction doesn’t have to define your golden years. There’s life on the other side, and residential treatment can help you get there.

Alta Mira Recovery offers a wide array of options for opioid addiction in a safe, tranquil, and non-judgmental environment. Contact us today to learn more about how our programs can equip you with the tools you need to break free from your addiction and maintain an opioid-free life.