Frequently Asked Questions

How does substance abuse differ in the elderly?

Substance abuse among seniors is real and complex. In many respects, the situations that contribute to an older person acting on an addiction are similar to those that affect younger people’s addictive behavior. But there are some important differences:

  • The body changes with age. Metabolism slows, some bodily functions become less efficient and changes occur in organs such as the liver and kidneys that result in increased sensitivity or loss of tolerance to alcohol and other drugs.
  • Older people experience more loneliness. Spouses and friends may have died and younger family members are busy with their own lives.
  • Boredom and feeling a lack of purpose in life may be brought on by excessive free time, or because of retirement and the loss of activity and social roles that were a part of work.
  • Chronic pain is sometimes a daily part of an elderly person’s life.

Identifying an elderly person’s substance abuse problem can be difficult. Forgetfulness and irrational behavior that may seem to result from old age may actually be a sign of an alcohol or other drug problem. Long-term use of alcohol can cause changes in brain chemistry, with symptoms that are sometimes mistaken in the elderly for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Abuse or inappropriate use of prescription drugs can also cause major problems, especially if the drugs are used with alcohol. Many elderly people take multiple prescriptions for various health problems and may use over-the-counter medications as well. Taken together, these medications may cause adverse reactions.
One way to minimize the potential for dangerous interactions is to have the person take all medications used in the past month to his or her next doctor’s appointment to review any possible interactions.

Failure to recognize or admit a problem obvious to others is called denial. It is a sincere delusion that there is no problem. Denial among elderly persons can be overcome, but not without difficulty.

When discussing an alcohol or other drug problem with elderly persons, reinforce the benefits of good health and a happier life. Let them know that their contribution to society is known and appreciated, that they are worthwhile, a joy to know, and still have a lot to contribute.

If the elderly person continues to deny the problem, consider professional intervention.

For the person who cannot be placed in treatment or who does not want treatment, 12-step self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) may be the answer. The local AA group may have a list of members who will make house calls. Among them might be elderly AA members with a long history of sobriety. AA has many members who have achieved sobriety successfully during their 60s, 70s, even 80s.

Just talking about your problems sometimes leads to new solutions. If you or someone you know needs information, guidance or help, call our Respond program at 1-800-366-1132. Respond offers confidential, caring assessments and referrals for individuals dealing with problems related to mental health issues and substance abuse. If you or a loved one are experiencing an emergency, please call 911 immediately.