People are living longer now, but their quality of life can degrade. If they lose friends or a loved one, experience pain, lose their freedoms, or feel discrimination, it can contribute to depression and substance abuse issues.  

The Facts Show Addiction on the Rise in Seniors 

Let’s review some of the startling statistics about addiction abuse in older people. 

  • For many elderly individuals, alcoholism and the misuse of prescription medicines has become a life-threatening epidemic.  
  • It is believed that 70% of all elderly people in hospitals and up to 50% of nursing home patients have alcohol-related issues.  
  • There is cause for concern among the elderly when it comes to mixing alcohol and drugs. About 83 percent of persons over the age of 65 take prescription medications.  
  • Sedatives are found in more than half of all prescriptions for the elderly. Combining prescription drugs and alcohol can be fatal at any age, but it is especially dangerous among older people. 

However, let’s look at another statistic that’s much more promising. Older people recover more successfully than all other age groups when they have a drug or alcohol problem. As a person ages, his or her tolerance to alcohol or drugs also lessens, making them more receptive to the help and intervention they need. Some seniors realize that alcohol and drugs will not cure feelings of anxiety or depression, but only make them feel more remorseful. 

The main two drugs of abuse by seniors are alcohol and prescription drugs.   

Alcoholism in the Elderly 

Two-thirds of older alcoholics are referred to as ‘early-onset’ alcoholics. This means they have been drinking most of their adult lives. The other third are known as ‘late-onset’ alcoholics. This category began drinking to excess later in life, often in response to an unpleasant event, such as the death of a loved one or to a change in their lifestyle. 

Prescription Drug Abuse by Seniors 

Prescription drugs, especially painkillers, are habit-forming and also very dangerous. Accidental overdose is frequent in seniors, especially when the drugs are mixed or combined with alcohol. After a major procedure or a lengthy hospital stay, an elderly person may become addicted to alcohol or drugs. 

More than 16.9 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are written each year by doctors for older individuals. Sedatives are included in around half of all medications prescribed for the elderly. 

Older individuals frequently take more medication than they need, often because they forgot they had already taken it.  If a drug matches a self-diagnosed disease, it is not uncommon for elderly people to take a drug prescribed to a friend or spouse, even if the prescription is not current. 

Prescription drug addiction, which can be potentially fatal, is curable as well. 

Signs of Excessive Drug or Alcohol Use 

Elderly patients may show indications of drug or alcohol abuse by the following behaviors: 

  • Drinking before, with, or after meals is a ritual.  
  • The person may become irritated when they can’t follow their drinking routine. 
  • The person has lost interest in previously pleasurable activities and interests. 
  • He or she still drinks despite prescription medicine intake. 
  • He or she is frequently inebriated, with slurred speech. 
  • He or she has gained weight,  lost a lot of weight, or is ignoring their appearance. 
  • He or she exhibits recurring sleepiness, appetite loss, or chronic health concerns. 
  • He or she has burns or bruises they try to hide. 
  • She or he may be more sad or aggressive than they used to be. 
  • He or she has problems remembering. 

Many of the above-listed signs may be attributed to other conditions, and therefore can make spotting an addiction difficult. However, many older people who stop drinking and have their prescription doses adjusted no longer experience the above episodes. 

Talking to An Older Adult About His or Her Addiction 

If you suspect your elderly parent is developing a substance use disorder (SUD), don’t delay treatment. Find out how to approach him or her about their addiction and help them get the proper therapy. 


Some adult children find it hard to broach the subject of drug abuse or alcoholism with their aging parents. For example, you might think that a parent has been drinking all their life and that, at this point, you cannot convince them to change.  

To speak to an older loved one about their addiction, keep the following in mind: 

  • Never speak to your parent when he or she is drinking.  
  • Use gentle communication. Don’t be confrontational.  
  • Never bring up painful past events. Instead, concentrate on the effects prescriptions or alcohol have on the person now. 
  • Be direct when communicating with your older parent. 
  • Speak about the effects of using drugs or drinking alcohol on the people or things your loved one highly regards, such as grandchildren, their overall health, or memory loss. 

Final Thoughts 

Today, people in their seventies can live as many as 25 additional years. Therefore, removing drugs or alcohol can give them a better quality of life in their golden years. There is no reason why you should not talk to an elderly parent about getting addiction help and counseling. 

As you can see, you can take certain steps to enforce a plan of positive intervention. Do what you can to preserve your relationship and help your parent feel better. You can discuss his or her addiction problem using a bit of forethought, conveyed with conviction and compassion. 


About the Author  

Scott H. Silverman has been facilitating interventions for many years.  He is the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient addiction treatment program in San Diego.