Alcohol Use and Older Adults

Getting Help

People Can Be Treated Successfully

Most people with alcohol problems can be treated successfully. People who are alcohol dependent and those who abuse alcohol and cannot stay within healthy drinking limits should stop drinking altogether. Others can cut back until their drinking is under control. Changing drinking habits isn't easy. Often it takes more than one try to succeed. But people don't have to "go it alone." There are plenty of sources of help.

Treatment for Alcohol Problems

A doctor can help decide the best treatment for people with alcohol problems. Many people need more than one kind of treatment. Medicines can help alcohol-dependent people quit drinking. Meeting with a therapist or substance-abuse counselor or with a support group may also help. Support from family and friends is important, too. Making a change sooner rather than later makes treatment more likely to succeed.

Older people with alcohol problems respond to treatment as well as younger people. Some studies suggest that older adults do better when they are treated with other people the same age instead of mixed in with younger adults. Some communities have treatment programs and support groups specifically for older adults.

Medicines for Alcohol Dependence

Prescription medicines can help people who are alcohol dependent reduce their drinking, avoid going back to heavy drinking, and get sober. None of them works in every person. Naltrexone (Depade®, ReVia®, Vivitrol®) acts in the brain to reduce craving for alcohol. Acamprosate (Campral®) helps manage withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, nausea, and sweating that may lead to a drinking relapse. Another medicine, disulfiram (Antabuse®), makes a person feel sick after drinking alcohol.

Support Groups Can Help

Many people with alcohol problems find it helpful to talk with others about their drinking. They can meet one on one or in groups with a therapist or counselor who specializes in substance abuse. They may also meet in self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA's "12-step" program helps people recover from alcohol dependence. AA meetings are open to anyone who wants to stop drinking. Attending self-help groups is beneficial for many people who want to stop drinking. Many people continue to go to support groups even after medical treatment for their alcohol problems ends.

To find help in your area, ask your doctor, local health department, or a local social service agency. You may also contact the following resources.

  • The Federal government's Treatment Facility Locator -- call 1-800-662-4357 or visit www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov
  • Alcoholics Anonymous -- see your local phone book, call 1-212-870-3400, or visit www.aa.org to find a group in your area
  • Eldercare Locator -- call 1-800-677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov

Some people with alcohol dependence are treated in a facility, such as a hospital, mental health center, or substance abuse clinic. Treatment may last as long as several weeks. This type of treatment typically involves detoxification (when a person is weaned from alcohol), medicine, and counseling.

Steps to Quit or Cut Back on Drinking

People with alcohol problems can take several steps on their own to help themselves. They can write down their reasons for cutting back or quitting, such as to avoid hangovers or improve relationships. They can write down a goal -- a limit on how many drinks they will have each day -- and put it somewhere easy to see. Then, they can keep track of drinking habits for a week to see if the goal was achieved. Other steps are to plan alcohol-free days each week and to drink water, juice, or soda instead of liquor.

There are some other actions that you can take to help change drinking habits:

  • Remove alcohol from the home.
  • Sip slowly and eat food when drinking.
  • Say "no thanks" or "I'll have a soda instead" when offered a drink. If tempted to drink, think about the reasons for changing, talk to someone, or get involved with a non-drinking activity.
  • Avoid drinking when angry, upset or having a bad day.
  • Stay away from people who drink a lot and the places where drinking happens.
  • Use the time and money spent on drinking to do something fun.

Sticking With It

When treatment is successful, people have longer and longer periods without drinking alcohol. Finally, they are able to stop drinking or stick to healthy drinking limits. But treatment does not always work. Also, many people with alcohol problems do not even seek treatment. People with alcohol problems cannot be forced to get help, but family members and friends can support them when they are ready. For more information about dealing with alcohol problems, see www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov.