Fresh Outlook Foundation

SENIORS’ ADDICTION: Stories of Healing from the Grips of Substance Abuse

Fresh Outlook Foundation

Stock Photo

By Melissa Mortimer 

*All names have been changed

When Steve was in his mid-50s, he was struggling to deal with the death of his father and battling with his siblings over the estate. His sleep was badly affected by the stress, and he found that having a few drinks after work and before bed helped… at first.

“I had been a social drinker since I was in my teens and never had a problem. I rarely drank on work nights, but for some reason I found myself needing to drink every night, even rushing home to get that first one,” Steve said.

Nearly six months later, he ended up in a medical detox, followed by a 90-day in-patient rehab program.

“I was sitting outside the liquor store every morning, trying to hold on until it opened and I could get that first hit of vodka into my system. By the time a friend took me to the ER, the doctor told me I was close to dying.”

Lindsay knew she had a problem when she turned 60 and retired from her career as a nurse. “While I was working, I would limit myself to one or two glasses of wine at night but then binge on the weekends. Once I retired, every night was like a weekend.”


Increased Sensitivity to Alcohol

Steve and Lindsay are not alone. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol and substance abuse among older adults and the elderly (adults over the age of 60) is a rapidly growing health problem in the U.S. and Canada.

“Our physiology changes as we age, and the body starts to slow down. This means the way we metabolize chemicals changes, so that one to two drinks we had our whole lives with no problem can feel more like four or five”, said Brenda Iliff, executive director of Hazelden Betty Ford Drug & Alcohol Treatment Centers in Naples, Florida.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that alcohol-related deaths are increasing among people 65 and older, with deaths among women rising at a faster rate than men.

Another recent study, led by Dr. Ibraheem Karaye, an assistant professor of population health at Hofstra University in New York, also found the same results.

The study found that the higher mortality rates among older women may be due to the accumulated toll that alcohol takes over the course of a woman’s life. While they may be drinking less than their younger counterparts, women 65 and older are facing health effects from decades of chronic drinking. You can read the full article here.

The World Health Organization recognizes alcohol and substance abuse as a disease, one that can affect generations of families. Coming from a long line of alcoholics on both sides of her family, Terry believes she carried the gene for alcoholism. “It’s just waiting for the fuel,” she said, “and by the time we think we have a problem and want to do something about it, we can’t.”


“I became somebody I couldn’t stand.”

Ellen, a housewife and mother of three, knew she drank too much. She didn’t drink for enjoyment and didn’t even like the smell of alcohol, but she craved the way alcohol made her feel. By her early 50s, Ellen badly wanted to quit and thought she could do this on her own, without help.

“I can manage pretty well anything in life so figured I could tackle this too, she said.”

Ellen tried many different things to cut back including drinking only Scotch, which she hated, thinking it would help her to drink less. It didn’t work.

“If you’re an alcoholic, as I was, you just end up drinking more scotch.”

When Ellen finally told her doctor that she thought she had a drinking problem, his advice was for her to stick to one cocktail before dinner.


Health Risks Increase Among Older Adults

Ellen’s experience with her doctor is far too common. Often doctors and other health care providers either minimize the risks of alcohol and drug abuse among older adults or miss the diagnosis completely.

Drugs and alcohol can exacerbate many of the conditions we experience as we age, such as heart problems, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, liver problems, and osteoporosis.

Whether someone has been abusing alcohol and drugs for a long time, like Lindsay and Ellen, or become addicted later in life, like Steve, they face much greater health risks than younger people.


A Connection Between Life Changes and Addiction

Aging can bring difficult physical and psychological changes to people’s lives. From retirement and moving, to losing friends and loved ones, older adults use alcohol and/or drugs as a coping mechanism to numb the emotional and physical pain of getting older.

Older adults are commonly prescribed more prescription medications, including antidepressants, tranquilizers, sedatives, and pain and anti-anxiety medications, many of which are highly addictive.


Crossing the Line

“I couldn't control my drinking anymore,” said Ellen. “It just became worse and worse and my behavior along with it. I was pulling stuff that went totally against my integrity and my morals. Once you cross that invisible line, there’s no coming back. That’s what finally got me to ask for help.”

It was a frightening blackout that finally made Lindsay seek out treatment.

“I had a friend visiting me before she moved to the States, so it was my last chance to see her for quite some time. I don’t remember her leaving. I just remember waking up in the morning with a glass of Scotch next to my bed. And I thought, you know what? I can’t do this. I can’t lose my life to alcohol.”

For Terry, then in her 50s, and a well-known member of her community, it was the feeling she was living a double life. “I was doing all sorts of good things in my town and was well-respected, but I didn’t like myself.” While she knew her children loved her, they didn’t like her, and they were very worried for her. One night, when she went to bed, Terry realized she couldn’t live this way anymore. “I got up the next morning and I shook all day. I know now that I probably should have gone into some kind of medical detox.”


Treatment for Seniors

“The approach to treatment for older adults is the same as for younger ones. However, detox takes longer,” said Iliff of Hazelden. She sees more people entering treatment later in life, some for the first time and others who’ve been sober for a long time.

For Steve, Ellen, Terry, and Lindsay, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings and following the 12 steps helped them understand their disease and stay sober. AA, Narcotics Anonymous, and other programs of recovery are built on a simple foundation of one addict sharing with another. The only requirement to join is a desire to stop drinking or using drugs.


One Day at a Time

Taking that first step is daunting for most addicts.

Ellen’s brother, Chris, who’d been in recovery for many years, helped her take that first step after she called him one night, sick and terrified.

“I was very drunk at that time, and I don't remember dialing the number, but I told him that If I have to live like this, I don't want to live any longer,” said Ellen.

Chris told Ellen there was a solution and that she already knew what it was.

“I had seen his recovery and knew that he succeeded with the help of AA, so that’s what finally got me to my first meeting.”

Lindsay worried about what her life would look like without alcohol.

“You think about your daughter’s wedding and how you won’t be able to join in the champagne toast. Or the fact that you can never have a glass of wine with friends again. But AA taught me that I don’t have to conquer the universe and prove how strong I am to the rest of the world. All I have to do is just take it day by day.”

For Terry, who felt that she was trapped at the bottom of a dark hole, AA meetings and the fellowship she finds among fellow alcoholics helped her to see that there was a way out of her despair.

“Just not knowing how to get out of that hole and then finding out that there is a place for us. There is a solution. We can help other people. They can help us.”


A Message of Hope

Sharing their story is a vital part of recovery for all addicts.

For Ellen, now 90, and sober for more than 40 years, telling her story is a way of giving back to a program that helped her get her life back. More importantly, her experience and ultimate recovery gives strength and hope to other addicts.

Lindsay is very open about her sobriety and is often asked by other women, “How do you know you’re an alcoholic?”

“There are a whole truckload of people out there who are worried that they’re alcoholics but don’t want to be,” said Lindsay. She asks them the same questions that AA uses to determine if someone has a drinking problem: Do you drink every day now? Do you ever drink past your control? Do you ever find yourself in a place where you can't stop yourself from having another drink? Do you drink when you're sad?

“Once someone’s lost control over their drinking, they find any excuse to continue. They drink when they're happy. They drink when they’re sad. They drink because they're stressed. It can be terrifying for people to admit that they can’t control their drinking. I know how that feels and I offer to take them to their first meeting and stand by them.”


It’s Never too Late

“There’s a myth that someone’s too old to change and ‘why can’t they just enjoy their life?’”  said Iliff. “But if someone is isolating, not seeing friends and loved ones, injuring themselves when drinking, that’s not enjoying life.”

When Terry shares her story she likes to remind people that recovery is not just about not drinking. “It’s about living. It’s about being able to cope when your sewer backs up and instead of grabbing a drink, you call a plumber. You learn how to do these things without looking for some way out.”

Melissa Mortimer is a writer and filmmaker from Vancouver, B.C. 



Alcoholics Anonymous

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (US)

More help coming for seniors with addiction in BC

Canadian Coalition for Seniors Mental Health

Using substances as an older adult 


Discussion Questions
  1. Do you need a drink after a stressful day?
  2. Have you found your tolerance for drinking has lessened as you’ve aged?
  3. Do you find yourself feeling worse the next day after only a few drinks?
  4. Do you feel better on the days you don’t drink?
  5. Have you had problems in the last year arising from drinking?
  6. Are you currently taking more medications than in the past?
  7. Are you taking medications that are considered addictive?
  8. Are you going to the doctor more often for different complaints?
  9. Do you have friends and family members in recovery?
  10. Are you avoiding social situations in order to drink less?
  11. Have you recently retired? If so, do you find yourself drinking more?
  12. Have you moved to a new home or city since you retired?
  13. As you get older, are you feeling more isolated from friends and family?
  14. Have you wanted to attend a 12-step meeting but are worried about being recognized?
  15. Have you been in recovery for many years and now think you could probably have a drink and be okay?
  16. Is there a person or group of people who would benefit by you sharing this story?

Did you enjoy this article?

Please consider making a donation.

Posted in Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , .