How to Talk to an Older Adult About Substance Abuse

Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind as you prepare what you want to say.

  1. Don’t talk to the older person when he/she is drinking. If evening is the usual drinking time, talk earlier in the day.
  2. Be gentle and loving. Avoid a confrontational style. Bring up the person’s good qualities and the happy memories you have together.
  3. Avoid the words “alcoholic” or “drug addict” since they carry a heavy stigma. If they feel that they are “bad,” they may retreat into resignation and even more solitary drinking.
  4. Don’t bother pouring alcohol down the sink or throwing away tranquilizers. If older persons are not ready to get help, they will simply replenish the supply.
  5. Do not dig up painful events from the past. Focus on the effects alcohol and prescriptions are having now.
  6. Keep in mind the person’s age and ability to understand. Instead of talking things out in one session, you may have to bring up the subject a little bit at a time. He/she may try to use old age as an excuse not to address the problem. Keep talking consistently and patiently without undue pressure.
  7. Be direct. Sometimes we coddle an older person like a child. Treat the person as an adult.
  8. Be specific. Present the facts in a straightforward manner, such as, “I’ve noticed that you drink almost a full bottle of wine over the course of an evening” instead of, “You’re always drunk.” Use “I” phrases, such as, “I noticed,” or “I’m worried,” since the older person can’t argue with your feelings.
  9. Talk about the effect of alcohol or drug use on whatever the older person cares about most: what other people are saying, health, or memory loss. For example, they may have given up on themselves, but still care very deeply about their grandchildren.
  10. Don’t worry if you don’t say things perfectly. The suggestions that follow are just guidelines. The most important thing is that you express your concern with love, gentleness and respect.

For more information call our Director of Outreach at 203-733-4524

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