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Can You Be Too Old To Start Recovery?

More research has been showing an increase in the number of older people, including baby boomers, overdosing or abusing drugs and alcohol.  Perhaps you thought addiction only affected young people or the wealthy?  Studies are revealing that substance abuse in seniors is becoming an urgent matter in geriatric medicine. Some seniors are becoming addicted to painkillers or alcohol, and they need help.

At the Edgewood Health Network (EHN), our addiction treatment centres in Canada see people from all walks of life.  However, recently we have been seeing a steady increase in older people seeking help for addiction. Some of you may be asking, “Can you be too old to start recovery?”

The Pressures of Life

I sat down with one of the first addiction counsellors at Bellwood Health Services, DR, an incredibly honest and compassionate person who always tells it like it is to clients coming into treatment. DR has worked in several capacities at Bellwood. From marketing, outreach to admissions – he’s done it all.  As a person who’s been in recovery for almost 40 years, DR has seen the way factors such as technology, education, and the family unit have changed and perhaps placed enormous pressure on people to “keep up” or get left behind.

“The pace of the world we live in is causing people to create high expectations for themselves and everyone around them.  A university graduate versus a trades person is perceived differently now than it was decades ago. The number of people and their concern to stay connected virtually, the immediacy that is expected from others to respond immediately, or the race to enroll your children in everyone else’s kids’ sports or hobbies are examples of stress that people are now experiencing that didn’t exist before. More stress leads people to want to stop the world and just get off. Some people try to relax through yoga or meditation. But there are others who will say it’s too much of a hassle to drive there or that they have no time. So what do they do? They use chemicals. It’s something to help them escape. And they can use it whenever, wherever.”

Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes

Of course, life changes as you get older. Financial circumstances may change, your family can grow or perhaps it gets a bit smaller with the loss of a loved one. If you haven’t reached out and received help for your alcohol or prescription drug abuse, chances are your life has spiraled out of control; you haven’t been handling the changes in your life in a healthy manner and you are still using after several years. DR acknowledges that confronting his disease and getting treatment for alcohol addiction was what he had to do to change his life.

“I think about how blessed I am not to use chemicals or alcohol anymore to escape or handle my problems. We learn through 12 step program, old-timers, and others that you must confront each situation and resolve it rather drug or drink it away, as it will just come back. Recovery modalities have changed and there are many more options since I undertook my alcohol recovery. You still have to work at it ONE DAY AT A TIME and remember to call someone if you need help. Yes, I still do the occasional meeting; not every month or every day, but I drop in and listen. It validates once again that my three bosses back in the beer industry did a great thing by not putting their heads in the sand, but instead confronting me about my disease.  I thank God they did. Relapse is always close at hand. If we get away from our program it can be easy to slide down that slippery slope.”

It also helps to be a part of team at an addiction treatment centre when you’re in recovery. “Working in this facility is like going to an AA meeting as it validates that the road of recovery that I chose many years ago was the right one. It cements the choices I have made. Yes, it is wonderful to see the graduates leave. They usually leave somewhat anxious, but if they use the tool kit filled with information and techniques we gave them, it will certainly assist them.”

Some Wise Words About Early Recovery

Early recovery can be a challenge for most people who have just finished treatment. Some say it’s where “the real work begins.” DR recommends avoiding certain places, have an exit plan if need be, and don’t forget to visit your regular support group.

“Avoid places in early recovery that are triggers for you. Examples might be baseball games or dressing rooms from beer league hockey where you might feel pressured to drink to be one of the boys again. There is nothing wrong with saying you are in recovery.  Some see it as a very strong point and are proud of you for the accomplishment. If you go to a function early in recovery where alcohol is present, a wedding for example, have a plan to leave. Share it with someone else before you arrive.  Let them know that if you are struggling and need to leave, you will give them a sign that you need their support to leave.  It could be your spouse, a friend, a business associate, a son or daughter. HAVE A PLAN and follow it.  Go to meetings.  They are wonderful and a place where you can be thankful for your sobriety. Participate in aftercare, wherever form that might take.  It can take place at the doctor’s office,  AA meetings, with a therapist, at an addiction centre, etc. I attended the YMCA for 25 years as part of my recovery plan.”

Getting Help if You Are a Senior for Substance Abuse

We asked DR if it was possible to be too old to start recovery.

“The first pearls of wisdom would be to mention a story of a graduate from the Credit Valley Alcohol and Drug program who attended AA. I was invited to his birthday party for his recovery. He was celebrating one year sober – 91 years young! You are never too old to be sober. One of my uncles by marriage could not stay sober and attended AA late in his life. He passed away sober. That was all his children ever wanted. He was three years sober. I believe the oldest graduate at Bellwood Health Services was roughly 83.”

If you suspect an older loved one or patient may be abusing drugs or alcohol, Bellwood Health Services can provide a complimentary assessment and provide early intervention. Give us a call or email us to learn more about how we can help.

Research Reveals the Baby Boomer Generation are Increasingly Developing Substance Abuse Problems


Within the last ten years, the face of substance abuse has changed in North America with more treatment centres having to treat a client population that are much older than it used to be.  Older adults are increasingly seeking treatment and support for painkiller and alcohol addictions. It was more common for addiction treatment centres to treat people in their 20s and 30s with substance abuse problems several years ago. Treatment and group therapy was focused on people of that age group as they shared certain demographics. Now, treatment providers  in the US and Canada, are receiving a wave of seniors with substance abuse problems and having to adjust the way they provide treatment and figure out what motivates our baby boomer generation to get well. So, why the sudden increase in our seniors developing addictions? There are several different factors that may be contributing to reasons why older Canadians are abusing alcohol or drugs.

The Main Triggers for Geriatric Substance Abuse

Loneliness, death, retirement and or health problems are the major reasons why our older generation are developing alcohol addictions, painkiller addictions or, in some cases, eating disorders. According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, women are more likely to be widows or been through a divorce, to have experienced depression, and to have been prescribed psychoactive medications that are negatively increasing the effects of alcohol. Research also suggests that several baby boomers that were in their early twenties in the 1960s, may have experimented with marijuana and other illegal drugs, are returning to these drugs as a way to cope with loss, stress or loneliness.

In addition to those factors, many seniors are entering retirement homes or those dealing with health conditions, are being prescribed more prescription drugs that have addictive characteristics. Alcohol is also being reported as a substance that is abused more heavily by seniors than it was ten years ago.  According to the British Columbia Medical Journal, one in six older adults are self reporting as heavy drinkers. The Canadian Addictions Survey in 2004, stated that 16% of people 55 and older admitted to heavy drinking. Substance abuse has a dramatic impact on the health of geriatric patients, which as a result, changes the way treatment centres provide care for them.

According to the BC Medical Journal, geriatric patients tend to have many medical problems as a result of the abuse in alcohol and the interaction of prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines and antidepressants.  Drugs and alcohol in older adults take longer to metabolize but its effects are felt faster because their bodies don’t carry as much water as they did when they were younger. Healthcare professionals won’t necessarily assess older patients for substance abuse because they don’t fit the common profile of a chronic drinker. A survey of 853 primary care physicians and psychiatrists revealed that only 13% of them used formal alcohol screening tools routinely.

Treatment and Early Intervention

The BC Medical Journal also revealed that early intervention and treatment in older patients works very well and would help geriatric patients avoid serious health consequences. Older patients understand the benefits of treatment such as improved cognition, independent living, improved health and better social connectivity.

It can be difficult to diagnose alcohol abuse or painkiller abuse in older patients as sometimes they can be confused for other health conditions or mental health disorders, such as anxiety, anorexia or depression. Some people may find it difficult to approach a loved one or to try and help an older patient with substance abuse because:


How to Identify a Senior Has a Substance Abuse Problem?

Research states that there are a few signs that may indicate an older person has a substance abuse problem. These can all be signs of other health conditions, but are commonly associated with signs of addiction in seniors:


If you suspect an older loved one or patient may be abusing drugs or alcohol, the Edgewood Health Network can provide a complimentary assessment and provide early intervention. Give us a call or email us to learn more about how we can help.