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Older adults deserve recovery from alcoholism,
addiction to prescription drugs

Not surprisingly, the signs of alcoholism and drug abuse are different in older adults
than in younger people. Abuse among older people is often hidden, because they no longer have coworkers who can notice their behavior, they often live alone, and they don't drive as much as they used to so they don't get stopped as much for driving under the influence.

However, there are some signs that may indicate a drinking or drug problem, such as:

Consider consulting a counselor, psychologist, doctor, social worker, or other professional if you suspect that an elderly loved one has a substance abuse problem. If possible, list the person's medications, doctors, family members and friends, and your observations in preparation for your meeting.

Always be gentle and loving with older persons and avoid shaming words or labels such as "alcoholic" or "drug addict," because they may retreat even more if they feel they are "bad" and their abuse could worsen. Be direct and specific, using "I" phrases such as "I'm concerned your drinking alcohol may be interacting with your medications."

Because older people may live alone or far away from family, it is often a mail carrier, a meter reader, a church friend, a neighbor, or a local storekeeper who observes behavior changes. Programs like Gatekeeper (253-756-3988) are valuable community resources that train those who come in contact with high-risk older adults to identify and refer problems. The U.S. Postal Service's "Carrier Alert" notifies mail carriers about older persons or shut-ins who are enrolled in the program. If mail accumulates, carriers alert the appropriate social service agency.

Substance abuse treatment for older adults not only improves their quality of life, but also helps family members, friends, caregivers, and the community. Relationships can deepen, making whatever years remain richer and more meaningful. We also know that treatment for substance use disorders is as effective as treatments for other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes.

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the following features are most important in treating older persons who have substance abuse problems:

If age-specific treatment is not possible or practical, it is important that facilitators and members in a mixed-aged program take care to address the special needs and issues of the older participants. 

While it is crucial to identify and treat older substance abusers, it is even more important to provide an environment that promotes healthy behavior by empowering individuals to manage life events without drugs or alcohol. SAMHSA identifies these protective factors:

Bereavement, pre-retirement, wellness, smoking cessation, drug and alcohol education, and life skills programs encourage healthy coping skills. Alternative activities such as volunteer work, Foster Grandparent programs, arts programs, post-retirement work activities, and cultural activities (such as community gardening) develop self-assurance, facilitate healthy interactions, and relieve boredom.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( offers a wide range of information and resources to help identify, treat, and prevent substance abuse among older adults. The pamphlet "How to Talk to an Older Person Who Has a Problem With Alcohol or Medications" is available on the Hazelden Web site.

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