Alcohol or Drugs – A Problem for Those Over 60?

March 21, 2022 – Views expressed in Bob’s Blog are solely that of the author and do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of the CAC Office on Aging or its staff.

The drug problem in America is out of control. In June of 1971, we started a War on Drugs and we have been in it ever since. There’s only one problem. We have not succeeded in bringing this problem under control. In fact, it’s worse now than it ever has been.

We Have Lost the War on Drugs

Here’s another fact.

Knoxville and Knox County have not escaped this. In fact, the substance abuse problem is more severe in Knox County than in any other county in East Tennessee.

When the Drug Problem is Mentioned, Have You Ever Looked at Who is Being Talked About?

It’s always young people from teenagers to those in their mid-forties. Have you ever heard of people 60 and older having a problem? I bet you haven’t. Did you ever wonder why?

It looks like those 60 and older have been overlooked.

There are no studies to see if people in this age group have a problem with alcohol or drugs. There are no reports of how severe the problem in that age group is. There is also no mention of what is being done to help these people get into recovery.

There are several reasons for this.

  • The first is ageism. There is prejudice against older people. They are frequently ignored by younger people. It would be a waste of money to see if there is a problem. Not much help could be given to them. They don’t have much longer to live.
  • The second is many have a hard time believing older people can misuse drugs or alcohol. Can you recall a grandfather or grandmother or that older man or woman living in your neighborhood really have a problem with drugs or alcohol?
  • Third, there is a stigma around it. If it became known that a grandfather or grandmother had a problem with alcohol or drugs, others would not only look down on them but also the others in the family who allowed it to get to that point.
  • Fourth, there is denial. Older people don’t believe they have a problem. They don’t seek help.
  • Fifth, many older people are living in poverty or slightly above that level. They don’t have the money to pay for the treatment they need.

Look at The Recovery Programs in America Today

How many people are in these programs? Not many. Most people in treatment or recovery programs are younger – under 45.

Those 60 and older are rare. They would feel out of place. If they went into a treatment program, they would not be able to relate to the younger people there They also would not get the social support they needed.

Let’s Go Back to America 60 Years Ago

The drug of choice for people before 1960 was alcohol. It was legal and readily available. Alcohol consumption increased when soldiers who fought in World War II returned home and grew older.

Illegal drug use in America started to grow from the mid 1960’s to the early 1970’s. Initially marijuana was the drug of choice for most. As time passed, people started experimenting with other drugs like LSD, heroin and cocaine. More recently meth, opioids and fentanyl came on the scene.

Right Now, Alcohol Use Is More Common Among Those over 65

Today, the number of men and women over 60 who drink alcohol has been steading increasing. The amount they drink also has increased.

Binge drinking has steadily increased in women over 60. In fact, women are more likely than men to start drinking heavily in their later years.

The isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has added to the problem. Lonely and depressed people are drinking in an attempt to feel better.

Marijuana and Other Drugs Are More Popular Than Alcohol for Those People Between 50 and 64

There is another growing problem – the potential abuse of addiction to opioids and other pain killers is growing.

A study of people between the ages of 57 and 85 done several years ago found that 37% of the men and 36% of the women were taking at least 5 different prescription medicines at the same time. Older people purchase and use 25% of the prescription drugs in America.

Another problem is older people have increased sensitivity to medications. These drugs metabolize more slowly in their bodies and take longer to work their way out of their systems.

Dangerous drug interactions can occur when some of these are taken with others at the same time. Also – when a person drinks alcohol while taking certain medicines, a harmful interaction can occur.

The Most Commonly Prescribed Medication for Those with Mental or Emotional Disorders is Benzodiazepines.

Yeah, I know you have no idea of what Benzodiazepines are. It’s just a term researchers and pharmacists came up with to confuse us. In layman’s language these are drugs like Xanax, Valium and Klonopin.

Sadly, these drugs can be addictive and there are concerns about the impact they have on older people. Regardless of that, between 15 and 32% of older adults are taking them.

Would You Agree We Can No Longer Afford Not to See if There is a Problem with Alcohol and Substance Misuse Among Those People 60 and older in our country?

• Shouldn’t we ask for studies to be done on this?

• If it is found there is a problem, do we need special recovery centers just for them or can they be treated in the existing centers?

• Can they get the same treatment as younger people or will they need a different type?

Right now, it doesn’t appear anyone in the Substance Misuse field is even talking about this. If it is to happen, you and I need to start demanding studies be done. We also need to request others to join us in making this demand.

Where Do We Start?

Right now, people here in Knox County are taking on the existing Substance Misuse problem.

An All4 Knox initiative was started 3 years ago. Contact the people working on this initiative by calling 865-215-5706. Express your desire to get involved. Urge them to promote a study to see the extent of alcohol and substance misuse among people 60 and older.

You can also do the same with the Metro Drug Coalition. Their phone number is 865-588-5500.

Remember – It is going to take quite a while to get work going on this.

What Can You Do in the Meantime?

Start by looking at your own family and neighborhood.

Does any older person in your family have a problem with alcohol or substance misuse? What about the older people in your neighborhood?

Your aging parents, grandparent or grandparents may live by themselves. You may also have an older relative who lives alone. You may not see them regularly. When you have, have you noticed anything different about them? One or more of these signs may point to a potential problem with alcohol or drugs:

• A lack of interest in the activities they were always doing
• Failure to keep in touch with family members or friends
• Increasing irritability, sadness or depression
• A desire to be left alone
• Sudden complaints of unexplained chronic pain
• Poor personal hygiene
• Memory problems
• Changes in eating or sleeping habits
• Frequent and unexplained bruises

You may see one or more of these signs in an older person living in your neighborhood.

If you have seen any of these signs, talk with them. Let them know what you have noticed Find out why it is happening. Try to get them to open up about why they are acting the way they are.

The deeper you can get them to go in what they tell you, the better prepared you will be to determine if they need help. If you believe they may need help, talk to someone more experienced than you about the types of help available for them.

Here are 2 places you can call for information about whom you or they may want to talk to.

• The Senior Information and Referral office at the Office on Aging – 865- 546-6262

• The Mental Health Association of East Tennessee – 865-584-9125

You may feel you’re not in a position to do this. Someone else should. You may think one would be their family doctor. Their doctor is less able to see if anything is wrong than you are.

The problem is a doctor normally spends 15 minutes with a patient at the time of an appointment. During that short appointment, a doctor does not have the time to find out what is happening in the patient’s life and if they are drinking or taking drugs excessively.

They also are not trained to identify the signs of substance abuse in older adults. Another problem is symptoms of alcohol or substance misuse are similar to those of other conditions like depression, dementia or diabetes.

Alcohol or Substance Misuse Is an Illness

No one ever thought it was going to take control of their lives. Yet, it invariably does. Most want to stop. However, they don’t know how.

You may be the person to help them break the hold this illness has on their life.


If you have any comments on what you have read in this post, I would love to get them. Please email them to me. Also – if you have any ideas about subjects you would like to see discussed in future posts, please send me an email and let me know. My email address is