Glass of whiskey and ice cubes on wooden surface

Did you know that widowers over 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the United States?

An astounding 2.5 million older adults have drug or alcohol problems.

Seniors may not be the first group to come to mind when you think about alcoholism, but maybe they should be. Alcoholism can develop at any life stage, but it can be especially damaging to the elderly.

Higher Stakes for Alcohol Abuse in the Elderly

Senior men and women who abuse alcohol are at risk for all the same alcohol-related problems as younger people, but there are a few more dangers.

Slips and Falls – The elderly are already at greater risk for slips and falls, and they are more likely to land in the hospital when this happens. Add alcohol, which can throw off your equilibrium, and the result could be disastrous.

Metabolic Changes – Once we reach 65, our bodies become less efficient at metabolizing drugs and alcohol as they once were. This can cause an elderly person to get drunk quicker than someone younger.

Other Medications – According to data collected by AARP, people over 65 who take prescriptions regularly use an average of at least four medicines daily. Since alcohol reacts with many medications, drinking with prescription drugs can be very dangerous.

Identifying Alcoholism in the Elderly

Many medical and mental health disorders that are common in seniors have similar symptoms to alcoholism, so alcoholism can be difficult to identify. Diabetes, depression, and dementia may all present similar symptoms to alcoholism. If a healthcare provider suspects one is present, they may be less likely to diagnose alcoholism.

Misguided platitudes are other obstacles that get in the way of diagnosing a senior’s alcoholism. For example, many family members may argue that alcohol is one of the few pleasures grandpa has left. Another may imply that it’s pointless to address the problem this late in life.

The fact of the matter remains that alcoholism in the elderly can be dangerous. Considering the risks, it’s best to address the problem quickly.

Triggers for Alcoholism in the Elderly

The Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services puts elderly alcohol abusers into two categories. The “hardy survivors” have been abusing alcohol for many years, and the “late onset” group’s drinking was triggered by a life event in their senior years.

If you suspect someone you care for falls into the “late onset” group, he or she may have been triggered by one of the following events:

  • Death of a spouse or close family member
  • Mental or physical decline
  • Financial strain
  • Loss of independence
  • Retirement
  • Family conflict

How to Identify Alcoholism in the Elderly

Although alcoholism can mimic the symptoms of other disorders, it’s important to keep an eye out for the signs. Also, look for signs that your loved one may be hiding their drinking. This is a sure sign that something isn’t quite right.

Here are some of the signs of alcoholism:

  • Memory problems
  • Sadness and depression
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Failing to bathe
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of interest in regular activities

If you notice these along with a smell of alcohol on his or her breath, it’s time to talk about alcohol use and/or abuse. If these symptoms seem to appear suddenly, talk to this person about what’s going on. You may need a trip to the doctor to rule out other things, but don’t be quick to dismiss alcoholism.

If someone in your care is abusing alcohol, talk to him or her about the problem. If the problem persists, you may want to involve this person’s healthcare provider in the discussion. Mixing alcohol with certain medications can have dangerous consequences, so it’s best to address this issue head-on.

By Trevor McDonald

Trevor is a freelance writer and recovering addict & alcoholic who’s been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.

Written by Guest Author
The Caregiver Space accepts contributions from experts for The Caregiver's Toolbox and provides a platform for all caregivers in Caregiver Stories. Please read our author guidelines for more information and use our contact form to submit guest articles.

Related Articles

The State of Paid Family Leave

The State of Paid Family Leave

"The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world BECAUSE it doesn’t have paid family leave. In other words, our position as one of...

Popular categories

After Caregiving
Finding Meaning
Finding Support

Don't see what you're looking for? Search the library

Share your thoughts


  1. How would they even treat it for an elderly person? Wouldn’t the medicine they treat with be just as dangerous health wise? I’m not knocking fixing the addiction. I just want to know how this helps identifying the problem late in life when they have been abusing alcohol for decades.

  2. I believe it, I have seen it in my family.


Share your thoughts and experiences

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Join our communities

Whenever you want to talk, there’s always someone up in one of our Facebook communities.

These private Facebook groups are a space for support and encouragement — or getting it off your chest.

Join our newsletter

Thoughts on care work from Cori, our director, that hit your inbox each Monday morning (more-or-less).

There are no grand solutions, but there are countless little ways to make our lives better.

Share your insights

Caregivers have wisdom and experience to share. Researchers, product developers, and members of the media are eager to understand the nature of care work and make a difference.

We have a group specifically to connect you so we can bring about change.