Health, mental health and addiction don’t have ages. Older and elderly adults can carry mental health and substance use issues forward from their past. Or they can begin to misuse and abuse drugs and develop an addiction when and where they are now. 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.1 Many more people in this age group drink alcohol to excess or misuse their prescription medications. As with young persons and adults, addiction doesn’t have a stereotype. Anyone can become addicted, even someone who is older, who has more life experience and is thought to be wiser.

Is Addiction a Problem for Elderly Persons?

Substance use and misuse can have real, life-threatening consequence for older people. They contribute to serious concerns such as:

  • Falls
  • Accidental injuries
  • Diseases and other physical health issues
  • Memory loss
  • Potential drug interactions or overdoses

These are just a few of the reasons why substance abuse among older adults cannot be ignored. Families can and should take action to protect the health of a loved one, but they need to take action in the right way. Learn how to hold a loving, compassionate and successful intervention to make a real difference in a loved one’s life.

Spotting the Signs of Substance Abuse in Seniors

Intervening for a person’s health and safety begins with understanding the situation. Some symptoms of addiction can be similar to the symptoms associated with advancing age or increasing illness. For example blackouts or fuzzy memories stemming from drinking to excess can mimic dementia or just declining memory function that comes with age. And if individuals already have a memory disorder, they may inadvertently abuse medications or drink more than intended simply because they can’t keep track of what they’ve taken and the time that’s passed between doses.

Although it can be hard to spot substance use disorders in elderly adults, there are still signs and symptoms families can look for.

These 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

An addiction professional, primary care doctor or mental health professional can help you assess the situation and determine the next best steps to take.

Other Problematic or Addictive Behaviors in Seniors

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 older adults may have a greater risk of this disorder than younger adults.2 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, shopping and other behaviors. 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 feeling of lack of control.

What to Do If You See Signs of Addiction in Older Adults

Older adults might benefit most from starting their journey to healing with a trip to the doctor. Medical professionals can run tests in order to spot any underlying issues that might be contributing to the abuse. Behavioral addiction can 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. Testing can help to search for illnesses that could contribute to compulsivity. A conversation with a healthcare professional can be a wake-up call for an elderly adult who doesn’t realize what he or she is doing or the effects it may be having on his or her health.

An individual may willingly see the doctor and accept the need for help at the end of that visit with no additional intervention by the family. However in some cases this may not be enough or a family may need a more structured intervention just to get a loved one to talk with a doctor.

Starting the Intervention Planning Process

A traditional intervention team is made up from people closest to the addicted person’s life. Everyone in the room has a stake in the addiction and the addict’s eventual healing process. In some cases intervention teams can grow to 15 people or more, but a group this size may not be the right approach for elderly persons. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains that this approach isn’t always best for older people, as they may feel attacked and overwhelmed when they’re met with a large group of people.3 It’s best to stick to just a few people who know and love the addict.

Good participants include the following:

  • Spouse or partner
  • 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 grandchildren or other young persons.

Do You Need to Hire an Interventionist?

An interventionist is a vital member of any planning team. Conversations about substance use or addiction can be delicate. A professional will make sure that the family is fully prepared for the discussion. He or she will guide the intervention itself to make sure it moves forward in a healthy and productive manner. An interventionist can also recommend the best intervention approach and provide insight on treatment programs that could help, and that might be a tremendous help for families in need.

What Words Should You Use?

What you say and how you say it matters. Older adults can be particularly resistant to the idea of being an “addict” or an “alcoholic.” They tend to have much more animosity toward the idea of addiction and have ideas of addiction more firmly rooted in outdated stereotypes or misunderstandings. Labels tossed around during an intervention are likely to make an addicted adult just shut down or 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 facts that don’t have associated labels or connotations. They can be more compelling than technical terms or explanations.

The issue of shame and embarrassment can be acute in older people with addictions. Substance abuse loves secrets, lies and denial. Anyone struggling with addiction also struggles with the idea of being seen, exposed and out in the open. Families should work hard to include phrases of love and support in their interventions. An intervention is a compassionate, caring action. It is not a time to attack, yell or place blame. The person should feel loved, supported and cared for. Recovery won’t be a solitary process. The family should broadcast their willingness to be there and help at every step of the journey.

Good phrases to use during an intervention for an older adult include the following:

“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 put together scripts and hold repeated practice sessions. This can help families edit out triggering words or phrases and make sure that “love” remains the first and foremost message. Practice sessions can help families prepare for possible responses and avoid using labels or accusatory language so that events never get overly dramatic or out of control.

Recovery Is Possible at Any Age

No one is ever too old to change, heal and grow as a person. Substance Use and Misuse found that older adults responded to addiction therapy in much the same way as younger people and that all ages groups can reduce their substance use through therapy.4 Families that step in provide an older adult with the tools needed to deal with substance use. They will help their loved one address co-occurring mental health and physical health issues and cope with life’s changes in a healthy, productive way. Taking action can provide a person with years of healthy and happy life. That’s something every family wants, and an intervention can make it happen.

If you’d like help planning an intervention for an older adult in your life, reach out to Black Bear Rehab. We can connect you to family mediators who specialize in providing care for older adults. We have trained professionals who are willing to work with your family right now and get the person you love on a healthier path. Please call us at 706-914-2327 to get started.

By Melissa Riddle Chalos


1“Illicit Drug Use Among Older Adults.” National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 1 Sep. 2011.
2“FAQ.” National Council on Problem Gambling. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.
3“Referral and Treatment Approaches.” Substance Abuse Among Older Adults. 1998.
4Gorden, Adam, et al. “Comparison of Consumption Effects of Brief Interventions for Hazardous Drinking Elderly.” Substance Use & Misuse. 3 Jul. 2009.