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For Caregivers: Warning Signs of Drug and Alcohol Misuse

Adults of all ages can have problems with drugs and alcohol. This includes older adults that are ages 65 and older. If you help care for an older adult, be aware of the warning signs of alcohol and drug misuse.

Warning signs of alcohol or drug use in older adults that may be a problem can include:

Changes in behavior

These behavior changes may include:

  • Falling a lot

  • Being unable to make it to the bathroom in time (incontinence)

  • Having more headaches and dizziness than usual

  • Not keeping themselves clean (poor hygiene)

  • Changing what and how they eat, for example, not eating as much

  • Ignoring and losing touch with family and friends

  • Thinking about suicide

  • Having legal or money problems

Changes in mental abilities

Here are some additional signs that may mean someone has a drug or alcohol problem:

  • Feeling anxious a lot of the time

  • Worsening memory

  • Trouble focusing or making decisions

  • Losing interest in your usual activities

  • Having mood swings or feeling sad or depressed

What to do

If you notice any of these signs in someone you care about, talk with your healthcare provider. It may not always mean there is a drug or alcohol problem. Many of the signs listed here also can be signs of other health problems (such as depression or memory problems) that many older adults have. Changes in behavior also could be signs of stress.

Tell your healthcare provider about the drinking or medicine use, including over-the-counter medicines, herbs, and dietary supplements. Also, tell them about any alcohol or drug use in the past.

Drinking or misusing medicine or drugs often starts after a big change in life. Retiring, the death of a spouse or good friend, leaving home, and being diagnosed with a disease all can trigger substance misuse. If a life-changing event happens to you or a loved one, watch for signs of drug or alcohol problems.


Treatment for alcohol or drug dependence in older adults has the same features as treatment for younger people. Detoxification, medicine, counseling, 12-step programs, and moderation programs may all be used.

If medicine misuse is a problem, talking with a healthcare provider, friend, or family member can help. Treatment could be as simple as learning more about your loved one's medicines and organizing how they are taken. You may be able to work with your healthcare provider to cut back on how many medicines they take or make it easier to take them as prescribed.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 9/1/2019
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