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Many people think alcohol and other drug use problems (called a substance use disorder) happen only to teens and younger adults. But anyone can have problems with alcohol and other drugs, including older adults.
Older adults may use illegal drugs or cannabis, use prescription or over-the-counter medicines in harmful ways, drink too much alcohol, or mix alcohol and medicines. Doing any of these can cause serious health problems and problems with money and the law. It also can harm relationships with family and friends.
It can be harder to tell if an older adult has problems with substance use, because:
Typically older adults do not drink as much alcohol as younger people. But for those that do choose to drink there are things to be aware of.
The effects of alcohol are different in older adults. Older adults:
The risk factors above mean that older adults who choose to drink alcohol should not drink more than the daily and weekly limits outlined by Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines.
It’s important to remember this guideline is a low-risk but not a no-risk guideline. But remember that the risk for several chronic illnesses goes up with each drink a person has. And remember that this guideline sets a limit, not a target, for alcohol use. Some older adults should not drink any alcohol. Older adults who choose to drink should talk to their doctor about what amount of alcohol is safe for them.
Older adults often take many medicines. This can sometimes lead to misuse of medicines, such as:
Drinking alcohol or misusing medicine or other drugs often starts after a big change in life. This can include retiring, the death of a spouse or good friend, leaving your home, or being diagnosed with a disease. If a life-changing event happens to you or a loved one, watch for signs of alcohol or other drug use problems. Let your doctor know if you use alcohol, illegal drugs, and medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, herbs, and dietary supplements.
Warning signs of alcohol or other drug use problems in older adults can include behaviour and mental changes.
If you notice any of these signs in yourself or someone you care about, talk to your doctor. Having these signs doesn’t mean you have a problem with alcohol or other drugs. Many of these signs are also related to other health problems that older adults may have. Changes in behavior can also be related to stress.
Signs of an alcohol or other drug use disorder include:
Changes in mental abilities
Treatment for substance use disorder in older adults is the same treatment as for younger people.
Alberta Health Services offers many addiction and mental health services, including the following free and confidential helplines that are available 24 hours a day:
If medicine misuse is the problem, sometimes talking to a doctor, friend, or family member about the problem can help. Learning more about your medicines and organizing how you take them can help prevent misuse.
CitationsDepartment of Health and Human Services (2008). Substance abuse among older adults. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP), Series 26 (DHHS Publication No. SMA 08-3918). Available online: http://store.samhsa.gov/product/TIP-26-Substance-Abuse-Among-Older-Adults/SMA08-3918.
Adaptation Date: 5/5/2021
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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