Aging & Addiction

Silver Tsunami

How to Help Seniors Navigate the Road to Recovery

In providing this e-book, I hope to help educate and bring awareness to what I call the Silver Tsunami of aging and substance abuse. This guide is for everyone. Whether you are a sufferer of substance abuse or mental health, or you are a supportive family member, social workers and healthcare professional, this book is created for you.

Shame and stigma are just two of the reasons this growing issue remains invisible and goes mostly untreated. Yet, the research is compelling: seniors who are willing to seek treatment have better outcomes than younger adults facing the exact same issue. That’s why it is imperative that we continue to highlight this issue and work together toward recovery.

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What Is Elderly Alcoholism & Substance Abuse?

Elderly Alcoholism & Substance Abuse are behavioral health terms defined by  drug &/or alcohol addiction in older adults, typically over the age of 60 years old. This type of addiction and abuse can happen for any number of reasons, or due to particular conditions or disorders developing. These conditions are often surprising for family members as the identified individual may have spent decades without any signs of a developing issue. Often, this is because work or family had served as the  priority for that person’s life, and aging adults face new challenges once those priorities shift.

Approximately 10% of women and 20% of men over the age of 65 drink more than what is considered healthy, per Choose Help (online resource for addiction and recovery).



Common Types of Addiction & Behavioral Health Problems

In recent years, the number of stories about aging parents who are embracing opioids, alcohol and other drugs has increased. Though it is becoming more common for these older adults to experience a substance abuse or alcohol addiction, it also particularly alarming — many of these same senior adults have the responsibility of helping to raise grandchildren, who are the future of our country.


Late onset alcoholism refers to people who develop drinking problems later in life. Approximately 1 in 3 adult alcoholics are considered late onset, more women than men fall into this category.

With older adults, this is often triggered by a significant life event that precedes the change in behavior. These can include:

  • Death of a spouse
  • Divorce
  • Health related issues
  • Retirement
  • Social Isolation
  • Children growing up and moving away

Another potential factor is if the unidentified individual struggled with alcoholism or substance abuse earlier in life. Even with years of recovery, these people are at higher risk than those who’ve never had an issue.

Prescription Drugs

Substance abuse in older adults is also on the rise. The largest contributor is chronic pain and over prescribing medications. As people age and bodies become more susceptible to disease, they turn to drug treatments to ease the pain. Left unmanaged, this can become a dangerous cycle that’s hard to break.  

There is a worldwide opioid and alcohol epidemic right now, and the number of families who deal with a traumatic loss as a result is staggering.  This crisis is hitting older adults particularly hard too. Americans age 65 and older account for approximately 30% of all prescriptions that are written. So, what starts as a simple pain management program can too easily become a serious dependency on the prescription.

Illegal Drugs & Narcotics

Most people don’t think about senior citizens and illicit drug use. However, the elderly population is increasingly turning to illegal drugs such as marijuana or sedatives as a means to cope with their struggles. The stereotypes held by younger generations may prevent certain family members from growing suspicious about addiction and substance abuse issues in older adults. In addition, elderly patients often receive misdiagnosis regarding substance abuse. Family members and doctors may confuse warning signs with signs of aging instead.

Social Isolation

Social isolation plays a large contributing role in seniors struggling with alcohol addiction and substance abuse. Often, retirement or declining health lead to changes in one’s lifestyle, causing less interaction with others on a regular basis. As people begin to age they often lose family members, spouses, and friends. This can create strong feelings of loneliness, anxiety and fear about the future. For some, even the perception of isolation may be cause for an intervention. Those experiencing social isolation are at greater health risks and generally hold more pessimistic outlooks on the future.

Depression & Anxiety

Depression and anxiety often increase with aging adults, in part because of factors such as social isolation. Seniors can become anxious wondering who will care for them once a spouse is gone or when family members move away. The overwhelming sense of loneliness can easily become depression if left untreated.

Financial insecurity is another factor for anxiety among aging parents. The high cost of healthcare and prescriptions can be downright daunting, while some struggle just to retire at all.

Warning Signs

Behavioral Changes

Aging changes the way the body metabolizes alcohol and medications can also impact the effect of alcohol. Thus, the standard guidelines for drinking are not the same for seniors and it may tough to spot an alcohol or substance abuse disorder. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can create serious consequences for seniors. Rather than focusing on the amount of alcohol consumed, it may be more important to look at the changes in behavior.

Some signs of a potential problem:

  • Increased anxiety or irritability
  • Irregular or changed sleeping patterns
  • Decline in hygiene
  • Decreased concentration or sustaining attention
  • Depression and/or suicidal thoughts
  • Changes in appetite or increased nausea
  • Chronic pain
  • Frequent or unexplained falls
  • Increased need for privacy

    Mood Swings

Sudden changes in mood or temper can be a signal of much more than age. If your parent was once a happy, upbeat person who now seems easily irritated and cranky, they may be struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse disorders. It’s very common for the elderly to begin demonstrating hermit-like behavior by shutting family members out. This helps them feel protected from any sort of social interactions that have become uncomfortable.


Secrecy around drug and alcohol intake can make it particularly difficult for family members to identify substance abuse in older adults. Older adults may have strong feelings of shame, judgement, or embarrassment over their behavior and go to great measures to cover up any signs of a problem. The social stigma of addiction is strong and though changing, may be difficult for aging parents to address. In prior generations, shame prevented people from getting help and plenty of seniors fight that internally.


Intervention Strategies

Family Intervention

The first step is to take action. Though 60 may seem old to younger family members, there is a lot of life after 60. Denying or ignoring the problem will only increase health issues and lower the overall quality of life of a suffering loved one. 

Extra care may be taken to keep a smaller group as older people are more likely to feel attacked or threatened by large numbers. Another concern is embarrassment or exposure in front of younger children. Typically, no children or youth would be present.

As family members begin to educate themselves on addiction, alcohol abuse, chronic pain and depression, they can initiate compassionate conversations with their loved one about getting help.


Intervention Led by Friends & CoWorkers & Caretakers

Friends, coworkers and even nurses, doctors and caretakers are all good participants for a senior intervention. In fact, with this age group doctors can be extremely valuable as older patients tend to highly respect their advice and opinions. Ultimately, the team will be composed of several people from the identified individual’s life.

Hiring A Professional Interventionist

Whether the intervention is led by family or others, seeking help is highly recommended. The interventionist is a highly valuable part of the team, able to plan the meeting itself and guide delicate conversations. A well-trained and experienced interventionist will work with the family to create a safe environment to handle delicate conversations.

The interventionist will help keep discussions on track and prevent any turns in the wrong direction. The family will be fully prepared and guided with word choice, particularly as seniors may be highly sensitive to terms like “addict” or “alcoholic.” These terms often do more damage than good, and a better approach is to focus on facts. Seniors may experience particularly high levels of shame or guilt during an intervention. They may also feel desperate. To counter this, skilled interventionists will maintain a loving atmosphere that promotes support.

5 Things to look for & questions to ask before you hire an interventionist

  1. What are your credentials? Be sure that the person you select has (at minimum) a designation of CIP, which stands for Certified Intervention Professional. After that, look for any social work or counseling credentials that could provide valuable experience.
  2. What model do you use for interventions? There are a wide range of intervention types and models, many of which are similar. Even if the interventionist has their own approach, just be sure the professional interventionist can explain it fully in terms that make sense for you. (I personally use an invitational approach which you can read more about here.)
  3. How do you plan/prepare for an intervention? This is essentially a follow up question to the type of intervention preferred. In asking, the interventionist will be able to outline all necessary steps prior to the intervention so that all participants have a complete understanding of the process.
  4. Can you recommend treatment facilities for my loved one? Experienced interventionists will have relationships with different treatment facilities and should be able to provide guidance as to the appropriate one for both your needs and pocket book.
  5. What is your experience? Naturally, we all have to have our first start. However, an experienced interventionist will bring years of methodology and inspiration to the process.


Evidence For Senior Interventions

Unfortunately, identifying a problem with older people is more difficult. Family members and doctors may confuse warning signs with signs of aging instead. Plus, this population may already be more isolated and can easily hide their habits. 

The good news however is that research shows that those who experience late onset addiction or substance abuse disorders respond well to treatment. They even tend to have better outcomes than younger adults with the same treatment.  The key factor is that they must be led to seek recovery.


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