Addictions are often thought of as a young person’s racket, but unfortunately, older people can also fall under the spell, and they might also begin to use and abuse drugs.

For example, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 5.2 percent of people 50 and older had used illicit drugs in the year prior, and many more people in this age group drink alcohol to excess or abuse their prescription medications.

These issues can be of real consequence for older people, contributing to falls, diseases and memory loss. The families of people like this might be desperate to do something to change the situation, but even so, there is reason to proceed with caution. Holding an intervention with an older person can be remarkably helpful, but only if it’s planned and executed expertly. A misstep could push an older person back into the arms of an addiction, so it’s best to proceed with the help of an expert.

Spotting the Signs of Substance Abuse

Some symptoms of an addiction can be similar to the symptoms associated with advancing age or increasing illness. For example, some people who drink to excess can forget the details of the evening that came before. Similarly, some people who have dementia can forget simple matters, regardless of whether they drink or not. Similarly, some people with memory disorders can inadvertently abuse their medications or their alcoholic drinks, simply because they can’t keep track of what they’ve taken and the time that’s passed between doses.

While anyone who abuses medications, drugs or alcohol might need some kind of intervention, older adults might best start their journey to healing with a trip to the doctor. Here, medical professionals can run tests in order to spot any underlying issues that might be contributing to the abuse, and the person could get some advice that might make the abuse stop. People with medical disorders may also get needed assistance that has nothing to do with addiction, if they begin with a trip to the doctor.

Even so, there are some signs of abuse that families should be on the watch for in order to see if an addiction is in play.

Those signs include:

  • Seeming preoccupied with a substance, discussing it often or checking for its presence on a regular basis
  • Taking prescription medications at dosage levels that aren’t recommended by the doctor
  • Behavioral changes, including sudden shifts in mood
  • Increased need for privacy
  • Withdrawing from the things the person once loved

Sometimes, a person will willingly see the doctor and accept the need for help at the end of that visit with no intervention by the family at all. Doctors can sometimes persuade older people of the need for care, as people of the older generation tend to respect their doctors and take their advice to heart. In some cases, however, a family might need to hold an intervention just to get the person to see the doctor. Other families might need to hold an intervention after the doctor’s visit, as the patient might not listen to the doctor’s recommendations.

Other Problematic Behavior

It’s also important to note that some older adults develop addictions to specific behaviors. For example, The National Council on Problem Gambling reports that 1 to 4 percent of the population is at risk of developing an addiction to gambling, and that older adults might have a greater risk of this disorder than younger adults.

Older adults may have more discretionary income to spend on gambling, or they may find that gambling provides them with a boost of joy without the stigma associated with drinking or taking drugs. Older adults can also develop addictions to playing online games, viewing pornography or shopping.

These activities can be just as distressing as a chemical addiction, as people who are addicted in this manner may spend all of their money, withdraw from their friends, and feel depressed and out of control. They may want to stop but feel unable to do so, and some people even contemplate suicide as a result of this lack of control. This kind of behavior is hard for a doctor to spot in a physical exam, but it is the kind of issue a family could bring up with a doctor, and testing could help to search for illnesses that could cause compulsivity.

An intervention might also be an excellent way to deal with this kind of addiction, as the family can get the person needed help without causing further embarrassment in the process.


Putting Together a Team

Typically, an intervention team is made up of many people from the addicted person’s life. In some cases, intervention teams can grow to 15 people or more, and everyone in the room has a stake in the addiction and the addict’s eventual healing process. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), this approach isn’t always best in older people, as people in this age group can feel attacked and overwhelmed when they’re met with a large group of people. It’s best to stick to just a few people who know and love the addict.

Good participants include:

  • Spouse
  • Roommate
  • Adult children
  • Member of the clergy
  • Nurse or caregiver

Additionally, SAMHSA recommends that families stick to participants who are older. Much of the information discussed in an intervention is sensitive, and it can be embarrassing for an older adult to be so exposed in the eyes of the young.

An interventionist is considered a vital member of the planning team, when the addicted person is an older adult. These conversations can be delicate, with many blind corners and opportunities for the talk to go south. It’s best for a professional to be firmly in charge, making sure that the family is fully prepared for the discussion and ensuring that the talk moves forward in a healthy and productive manner. An interventionist can also provide insight on treatment programs that could help, and that might be a tremendous help for families in need.

Word Choices

Older adults can be particularly resistant to the idea of being an “addict” or an “alcoholic,” SAMHSA reports, as they have much more animosity toward the idea of addiction. These kinds of labels, tossed around during an intervention, are likely to make an addicted adult just shut down and walk away from the talk without learning anything at all. It’s better to stick with words that are descriptive and accurate. Families can discuss how many drinks they see the person take in, how many pills are missing or how much money the person is spending on the addiction.

These are hard facts that don’t have labels associated with them, and they can be more compelling than insults and labels.

The issue of shame and embarrassment can be acute in older people with addictions, and they might feel desperate at the thought of being exposed and out in the open. Families should work hard to include phrases of love and support in their interventions, ensuring that the person feels loved, supported and cared for. The idea is to allow the person to feel as though recovery won’t be a solitary process, and that the family will be there to help.

Good phrases to use here include:

  • “I will help you.”
  • “I want to understand.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “I want you to get well, so you’ll stay with me for a long time.”

Interventionists may suggest that families pull together their scripts well in advance and hold repeated practice sessions in which they outline the exact words they’ll use in the intervention. The professional can help families to edit out trigger phrases that might inflame rather than support, and the family mediator can even play the role of the addicted person in the planning sessions, allowing the family the opportunity to practice the phrases they’ll use in response to arguments from the addicted person. Practice sessions like this can help families to avoid responding with labels or hateful phrases when they’re in a stressful moment.

Recovery Is Possible

Some people assume that holding an intervention for an older person is a little wasteful, as older people are considered set in their ways and unable to change. Thankfully, when it comes to addiction, this is far from the truth.

In fact, in a study in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, researchers found that older adults responded to addiction therapy in much the same way as younger people, and both sets of people were able to control their substance intake with therapy.

There’s no reason to allow an addiction to continue, when the family could provide help and make a bad situation just a little better.

Additionally, older adults sometimes slide into addiction due to underlying mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. Watching a spouse die, dealing with illnesses in longtime friends, and enduring painful physical illnesses could make anyone feel a little low and sad, and these behaviors could make an addiction seem almost reasonable. Families that step in may be providing an older adult with the tools needed to deal with life’s changes, and they could be providing that person with years of healthy and happy life. That’s something almost any family would want, and an intervention can make it happen.

If you’d like help in scheduling an intervention for an older adult in your life, please call us at 855-808-6212. We have many family mediators who specialize in providing care for older adults, and we likely have a trained professional who is willing to work with your family right now and get the person you love on a healthier path. Please call us to get started.

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It is helpful to be guided by a professional on how to stage a family intervention for a loved one struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues.