How to Help Grandparents with Addictions
Statistics on Addiction in the Elderly
According to the American Society on Aging, current knowledge about addiction in older adults is limited, and addiction in older adults may be more difficult to recognize and treat due to the presence of other existing mental and physical health conditions.3 While rates of addiction in older adults tend to be lower than in younger adults and substance use generally tends to decline after young adulthood, drug and alcohol abuse affects a staggering number of older adults.1,3-5
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2018, found that 1 million adults aged 65 and older had a substance use disorder (SUD), a medical condition defined by the uncontrollable use of substances despite the negative consequences.
- Alcohol is the most frequently used substance in older adults.1 The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) report that 43.9% of people aged 65 and older consumed alcohol, binged alcohol, and/or heavily drank in the month they were surveyed.
- Research published in 2020, discovered that alcohol consumption has increased more for people aged 50 and older compared to younger people in the past several years.
- Survey results from the 2019 NSDUH show that 4.2% of adults aged 65 and older used illicit drugs (which includes marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crack, inhalants, methamphetamine, hallucinogens, opioids, and psychotherapeutic drugs like painkillers) in the past month.
- The same survey found that 3.5% of older adults used marijuana in the past month.
- Alcohol use disorder (AUD), defined by the inability to stop drinking alcohol despite its detrimental impact, is one of the main reasons people aged 65 and older seek addiction treatment.
- The 2018 NSDUH found that 1.6% of adults aged 65 and older had an AUD, and 0.4% had a SUD.3
- In 2018, 24% of adults aged 65 and older received treatment for SUDs, and 16.8% received treatment for AUDs.
Signs of Drug Use in Grandparents
It’s not always easy to spot the signs of substance abuse in older adults. Only a physician or qualified mental health professional can diagnose a SUD, but there are certain signs of addiction to look out for if you’re concerned about your loved one. These signs do not necessarily indicate addiction, as they can also be caused by other health issues. However, some signs of substance use may include:1,6
- Increased falls, burns, or bruises.
- Accidents like car crashes.
- A lack of self-care or poor hygiene.
- Poor nutrition.
- Blacking out.
- Seeming disoriented.
- Memory loss.
- Chronic pain or headaches.
- Problems making decisions.
- Sleep problems.
- Appetite changes.
- Mood swings.
- Social isolation.
- Borrowing medication from other people.
- Financial trouble.
- Family problems.
- Legal issues.
Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
Risks and Dangers of Grandparents with Addictions
Older adults may abuse substances for several reasons. They may use drugs or alcohol to cope with certain issues or to deal with stressful life changes. Possible reasons older adults might use substances can include:1,6,7
- Chronic pain, which can lead to abuse of alcohol or painkillers like opioids.
- A previous or family history of SUDs.
- Social isolation or estrangement from family members.
- A decline in socioeconomic status, leading to increased stress from financial problems.
- Stressful life events like illness or bereavement.
- Simultaneously using lots of medications to treat one condition.
- Being divorced, separated, or single.
- Homelessness or a lack of supportive housing.
- Physical disabilities or a lack of motility.
- Forced retirement or income changes.
- Caregiving for a physically or mentally ill spouse.
- Memory issues or cognitive impairment, which can affect a person’s ability to monitor their behavior.
Addiction poses different dangers to older adults, which may include:1,2
- Accelerated age-related cognitive decline, which can affect memory and thinking.
- Increased physical health problems and injuries.
- Worsened mental health, especially in people who suffer from disorders like depression or anxiety.
- Increased suicidal ideation (thinking about self-harm).
- Chronic respiratory conditions (if using inhaled drugs like marijuana).
- An increased risk of diabetes (for alcohol abuse).
- An increased risk of certain cancers (for alcohol abuse).
- An increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (for alcohol abuse).
- Adverse cardiovascular functions, such as increased blood pressure or heart failure.
- Harmful interactions with prescription medications, which can lead to an increased risk of dangers such as:
- Breathing problems.
- Sleeping problems.
- Cognitive changes.
- Internal bleeding.
- Harmful blood pressure changes.
- Overdose, which can be deadly.
How to Help a Grandparent with Addiction
You cannot force someone to seek help if they’re not yet ready to do so, but you can encourage them, show your concern, and let them know that you’re willing to help. It can be a good idea to think about what you want to say in advance so that you’re prepared for the conversation. Some tips on talking to your loved one include:8,9
- Set aside a quiet time to let them know your concerns. Do this when your loved one is sober. You may choose to do this alone or ask other family members and loved ones to join you. If you’re trying to stage an intervention, do your research or seek assistance from an intervention specialist.
- Ask your loved one if they would like you to accompany them to the doctor. The doctor can evaluate and assess the problem to determine the appropriate treatment setting.
- Encourage them to start counseling or enter rehab. Let them know that you’ve read about the benefits of treatment—specifically rehab for older adults—and that most people need help to stop substance use. If they aren’t ready to go to treatment, ask if they’d be willing to try a support group.
- Listen to their feelings and concerns. If they don’t want to talk about it at the moment, don’t push it. Come back to the conversation at a later date.
Older adults may have different treatment needs than younger people, especially when it comes to addressing cognitive issues or other health concerns.10 Treatment looks different, depending on your loved one’s unique needs, but it can take place at an inpatient rehab facility, meaning they live onsite for the duration of treatment and receive 24/7 care. Or treatment may take the form of outpatient rehab. In this scenario, your loved one lives at home but travels to a facility for treatment. Additional support may include participation in groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or groups geared toward seniors with addiction, such as Seniors In Sobriety.10
It’s never too late to seek help. Many older adults with addiction may finally have the time now to put themselves first and seek treatment. Rehab can help people stop the cycle of addiction so they can regain control of their lives. If you or someone you know are struggling, please reach out to American Addiction Centers for information on various treatment options.
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- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July). Substance use in older adults DrugFacts.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Treating substance use disorder in older adults. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series No. 26, SAMHSA Publication No. PEP20-02-01-011. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Blanco, C. & Lennon, I. (Winter 2020-21). Substance use disorders in older adults: overview and future directions. Generations, 44(4), 1-7.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2019). Section 2 PE Tables: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2019). Section 1 PE Tables: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Kuerbis, A., Sacco, P., Blazer, D. G., & Moore, A. A. (2014). Substance abuse among older adults. Clinics in geriatric medicine, 30(3), 629–654.
- Rigler, S. K. (2000). Alcoholism in the elderly. American family physician, 61(6), 1710-1716.
- National Institute on Aging. (2017, May 16). How to help someone you know with a drinking problem.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Alcohol and drug addiction happens in the best of families.
- Taylor, M. H., & Grossberg, G. T. (2012). The growing problem of illicit substance abuse in the elderly: a review. The primary care companion for CNS disorders, 14(4), PCC.11r01320.