alcohol and dementia

Aging and Addiction

Substance abuse is often overlooked or misdiagnosed in older adults. But addiction does not discriminate — it can affect individuals of any age, gender, race, cultural background, or lifestyle. Know the warning signs of addiction and you can seek proper treatment for your loved one.


Recognize the Warning Signs of Addiction in Aging Adults

by Pam Feinberg-Rivkin, RN, BSN, CCM, CRRN – Aging Life Care Association™ Member


As the “baby boomer” generation ages, the abuse of alcohol and misuse of prescription medication is on the rise throughout our country. A 2011 study by Li-Tzy Wu and Dan G. Blazer through the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) states that by the year 2020, illicit drug use among seniors is predicted to double and reach 3.5 million. This startling statistic points out that issues surrounding aging and addiction need to be addressed in an effort to educate and provide the proper resources to identify and treat addiction in older adults.

Among the older population, there are two patterns of substance abuse: early-onset and late-onset. Early-onset means there has been a lifelong pattern of problem drinking or substance abuse, typically developed in their twenties and thirties, which continues and may get worse with age. Early-onset addicts account for two-thirds of elderly alcoholics.

Late-onset defines individuals that develop a substance abuse problem in their forties and fifties. Often a stressful life event may be the leading factor to increased drinking or prescription pill abuse. Causes are also linked to painful medical conditions, depression, dementia, isolation, financial difficulties, insomnia, sensory deficits, loss of a spouse or child, loss of friends, and poor support systems. Research has shown late-onset addicts account for a very small portion of the elderly population, and they are more receptive to treatment.

Barriers Preventing the Right Care

One of the main reasons doctors and children of addicts are often hesitant to encourage older adults to seek addiction treatment are the belief of common ageism myths. These myths often lead to misdiagnosis and denial, and they include:

  • Drinking is the only thing that makes Dad happy
  • Mom is old. What difference does it make?
  • Grandpa has nothing better to do. So what if he enjoys having a few drinks every once in a while?
  • They are too old to change.
  • Only young people suffer from addiction.

The myths that surround addiction in older adults are often coupled with denial on the parts of the older adult and their family or friends. Older adults are more likely to hide their substance abuse problems from their family and/or physician because they are ashamed or view it as a private matter. Spouses, children, relatives, or friends may also be aware of a loved one’s addiction, but are not sure how to address the problem or are ashamed at how the person is acting.

Another barrier that often prevents older adults from getting the proper addiction treatment is misdiagnosis. Studies show that it is often challenging for healthcare providers to diagnose substance abuse in older adults because the symptoms of substance abuse or addiction are similar to those of dementia, depression, or other illnesses common with aging. Similar behavioral signs that exist when someone is under the influence may also be mistaken for the symptoms of a dementing illness (loss of balance, confusion, slurred speech). In fact, in their 2002 book Aging and Addiction, Carol Colleran and Debra Jay write that many physicians fail to address problem drinking among older patients because they believe drinking is one of the last few pleasures left for the elderly.

Know the Warning Signs 

Even though the symptoms of addiction mirror those of dementia, it is still possible to look for warning signs in your loved one. If you notice any of these signs, call a doctor or addiction professional:

  • Memory loss or confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Irritability, depression, unexplained chronic pain
  • A desire to be alone most of the time
  • Failure to keep up with physical hygiene or household chores
  • Trouble concentrating and finishing sentences
  • Lack of interest in activities and staying in touch with friends and family
  • Lying about drinking habits, or discomfort when questioned about drinking or drug use.
  • Frequent complaining about medical problems without any evidence


Getting the Right Treatment

The first step in addressing addiction is to talk to the person of concern in a non-combative, empathetic way. Use non-threatening language to show you are concerned about their health, but don’t force the issue if they get angry. If the person refuses to acknowledge their problem, a family intervention may be necessary. An intervention is a meeting with between 3 and 8 close friends, family members, doctors, and addiction professionals to discuss the person’s status and need for treatment. Professional interventionists can assist you in facilitating the conversation and finding the best treatment plan for your loved one. With the support friends and family, an intervention allows the family to be involved in the recovery plan and heal together.

Addiction does not discriminate, it can affect individuals of any age, gender, race, cultural background, or lifestyle. It is not a choice, it is a disease. There is no shame in seeking help. Even in the depths of addiction, there is always hope. Studies have shown that addiction treatment works for people of all ages, so with the support they need, your loved one should never feel hopeless. Don’t wait a day to seek help, because recovery is possible at any age.


About the Author: Pam Feinberg-Rivkin is the Founder and CEO of Feinberg Consulting, Inc. A Registered Nurse since 1977, Pam’s professional experience includes aging health concerns, addiction and substance abuse in individuals of all ages, traumatic and other acquired brain injuries, and mental health issues. Contact her through email at or like Feinberg Consulting on Facebook.

This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute, nor is it intended to be a substitute for, professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Information on this blog does not necessarily reflect official positions of the Aging Life Care Association™ and is provided “as is” without warranty. Always consult with a qualified professional with any particular questions you may have regarding your or a family member’s needs.

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