Alcohol Treatment for the Elderly

When picturing someone struggling with addiction (otherwise known as an alcohol use disorder), not many people will envision an elderly person, though this is more prevalent than often thought.

Many elderly individuals struggle with addiction, either to alcohol, other substances, or a lifestyle such as shopping or gambling.

However, due to other issues that elderly individuals may struggle with, addiction is often misdiagnosed or misrepresented within this demographic.

Arguably, addiction and the effects of alcohol can have some of the most serious effects when present in an elderly individual due to the strain that it has on both physical and mental health.

Elderly patients may require additional support when going through rehabilitation for issues relating to other medical conditions, major life changes.

They may also need extra assistance in gaining proper treatment for their addiction and its associated issues.

In many cases, elderly individuals struggling with addiction are recommended to enter inpatient care (referring to residential care), as this is the form of alcohol treatment for the elderly that is most flexible and able to be tailored to each individual.

Causes of Addiction in Older Adults

An elderly woman washing carrots in the sink

In some instances, elderly individuals are more at risk of developing an alcohol abuse disorder as well as other addictions.

This is due to a combination of factors that come with this demographic. The main reasons this is the case is due to ageing, multiple prescriptions, and chronic illnesses (1).

These are described in greater detail below:

  • Ageing – as individuals get older, many aspects of their lives will change. When it comes to addiction, elderly individuals may feel like trying something new, not caring about the consequences in the belief that they may not have to deal with these issues very long
  • Multiple prescriptions – elderly individuals can develop a number of diseases and disorders as they move into their senior years. This increases the likelihood of an individual having to consume large numbers of drugs and medications every day. Because of this, an individual may develop an addiction to these prescription drugs, or they may turn to alcohol in order to combat some of the negative side effects associated with this
  • Chronic illnesses – to deal with the side effects and negative consequences of chronic illnesses that an individual may be faced with as an elder, they may turn to substance use as a coping mechanism or due to the effects of combining alcohol with their medication

Common Signs of Elderly Alcohol Abuse

Man putting hand to the camera in 'no' or 'stop' gesture

As covered by the points above, addiction in the elderly can be caused by a number of factors.

However, ascertaining whether or not someone may be struggling with these issues is an entirely new challenge.

Typical behaviours to look out for include individuals becoming more reclusive in their social life, perhaps declining invitations to activities and events that they enjoyed previously.

They may be more secretive about their alcohol consumption, becoming annoyed or angry if confronted about this.

In addition to behaviours to look out for, there are also additional screening and diagnostic tools that may be used to assess the extent of someone’s alcohol consumption.

Examples of these tools include ASSIST (Alcohol, Smoking and Substance Involvement Screening Test) (2) and the CAGE questionnaire. (This is named after the four areas it assesses surrounding alcohol consumption: cutting down, annoyance, guilty feelings, and eye-openers) (3).

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and can assist you with alcohol treatment for the elderly.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Rehabilitation for Addiction in the Elderly

An elderly man hugging his small granddaughter

Because of elderly individuals’ predisposition to alcohol use disorders, rehabilitation is therefore of utmost importance and urgency.

Though alcohol treatment for the elderly may not be the priority for the individual struggling, seeking help as soon as possible is essential.

With alcohol especially, the consequences of a long-term addiction can be life-threatening, and the process of withdrawing can be just as dangerous if not properly supervised, managed, and monitored.

As mentioned previously, the most commonly recommended form of rehabilitation for elderly individuals is residential rehab.

Residential rehab provides the environment, resources, and tailor-made addiction treatment programmes that elderly individuals need, providing full support at every step of the way.

This is far more effective than one-off outpatient treatment services and lack of specialisation found across other sources of rehab services (4).

Types of Alcohol Treatment for the Elderly

Through residential rehab, as well as other providers of rehabilitation, elderly individuals will be encouraged to follow the three stages of rehabilitation, in order and with full commitment at each stage.

These three stages are outlined below:

  • Detoxification – a crucial stage of any individual’s rehabilitation, this is the stage in which individuals cut down on and eventually stop consuming the substance they are addicted to. Residential rehab may provide private detox clinics for this stage of the process
  • Rehabilitation/therapy – this is where most of the individual’s specialised addiction treatment plans will be carried out. Taking part in daily treatment sessions, therapies, and other holistic treatments, individuals will focus on the root cause of their addiction, developing an understanding of their addiction and creating coping mechanisms to deal with cravings and triggers
  • Aftercare – this is further rehabilitation received after an individual leaves a residential rehab centre or outpatient alcohol treatment for the elderly. Common aftercare services include joining an addiction support network e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, and attending regular meetings with an addiction support officer

Intervention Alcohol Treatment for the Elderly

People in armchairs at an itervention

For individuals who are more reluctant to enter rehabilitation or those who may be in denial about the severity of their disorder, it may be beneficial for some individuals to take part in an intervention.

Interventions include the meeting and conversation between an individual struggling with addiction (the elderly individual, in this case) and close friends and family around them.

Many close relatives may have struggled with the indirect impacts of addiction from someone they love and may be looking to broach the topic of alcohol treatment for the elderly person.

This intervention is also generally mediated by a professional counsellor or interventionist. This is to ensure that all suggestions made about the future of the individual’s rehabilitation are beneficial and appropriate.

Modern methods of intervention such as CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) work on building relationships between the individuals within an intervention, helping them to support one another and welcome new changes into their lives together (5).

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Adverse Effects of Excessive Alcohol Use

Doctor with clipboard

It’s important to introduce alcohol treatment for the elderly as soon as possible, as long-term alcohol misuse and heavy alcohol consumption, the effects can be severe.

This is because alcohol is a physically addictive substance, meaning that it creates changes in the brain that maintain the desire to engage in addictive behaviours.

When alcohol is no longer entering the system, it can have serious and life-threatening consequences in some cases.

This results in withdrawal symptoms – the effects of alcohol and other harmful toxins leaving the body after a period of not consuming the substance.

With alcohol, it is common that individuals with a long history of chronic alcohol abuse may experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS).

AWS develops within the first 6-24 hours of the individual’s last drink and includes serious physical health effects, as well as those relating to mental health (6).

The most common symptoms of AWS include insomnia, increased sweating, body tremors (Delirium tremens) and, liver complications (alcoholic liver disease), as well as complications of other vital organs such as the heart.

How Can Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

An older couple linking arms

Although the link between alcoholism and mental health is still under review, the link between the two is undeniable.

Mental health issues are often underlying within addiction and can cause serious effects in the long-term if not treated during alcohol treatment for the elderly.

In some European countries, it is suggested that up to 10% of male depression may be caused by the consumption of alcohol (7), highlighting the need for mental health care within addiction treatment.

Most residential rehab centres offer mental health services, with therapy and other therapeutic techniques being common practice across a typical addiction treatment programme.

In addition to these specific mental health services, individuals will also benefit from the opportunity to be away from their previous environment – something which may have worsened their addiction in the past.

Mental health support may be found through mental health services administration if the individual is seeking help outside of a residential rehab centre.

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on  0800 111 4108.

Alcohol-Related Diseases

Two doctors in white coats and stethoscopes talking

As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the link between addiction and both physical and mental diseases is undeniable, but this may be even more the case for elderly individuals seeking alcohol treatment for the elderly.

As an individual ages, the functioning of the body begins to slow down. though this is not at the same rate for every individual, eventually there may be some bodily functions that begin to impact their everyday lives.

When accelerated by the regular consumption of alcoholic beverages, these functions can worsen even further.

Some of the area’s most at risk from chronic alcohol abuse are described in further detail in the following paragraphs.

1. Alcohol and the cardiovascular system

As the main chemical in most alcohol, ethanol is known for its effects on the cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels) and how it can negatively impact these areas.

The most common effects on the cardiovascular system from chronic alcohol abuse include heart failure and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) which peak with the risk of sudden death at age 50 (8).

An increase in blood pressure is also associated with chronic alcohol abuse.

With a decrease in alcohol consumption – and more preferably, complete alcohol abstinence – these symptoms are shown to decrease in severity.

However, the amount to which this is effective still requires additional research.

2. Alcohol and the endocrine system

Doctor writing notes, with a laptop in the near field

The endocrine system (the system which encapsulates all the glands of the body that produce hormones) is an essential system when it comes to everyday planning and functioning.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the area’s most adversely affected by the body’s absorption of alcohol.

Alcohol specifically is known to affect the hormone known as serotonin. This is an essential hormone most commonly associated with the regulation of mood, feelings of anxiety, and emotional control.

Because of this, the effect of alcohol on the endocrine system can also be said to drive addictive behaviours in some cases, though this is a concept that requires further research (9).

3. Alcohol, liver, gut, and pancreas

Though other effects of heavy alcohol intake may be heavily researched and recorded, the effects on a cellular level are not as well documented.

This is the extent research must go to see how alcohol affects the liver, gut, and pancreas.

At a microbiological level, the presence of ethanol around these vital areas of the body can cause significant issues.

For example, ethanol has been shown to reduce the blood flow within the pancreas, reducing digestive abilities, as well as reducing the tract within gastrointestinal passages (10).

This, in turn, shows how seriously alcohol can disrupt a range of different bodily functions, becoming especially prevalent in elderly individuals struggling with alcohol addiction and other alcohol-related problems.

4. Alcohol and immune response

An elderly woman in a wheelchair

The immune system is a system already known to worsen in elderly individuals, hence the additional support received through the NHS such as free flu jabs before winter.

However, research also shows that alcohol plays a role in reducing this further, leading to an increased risk of elderly individuals falling ill with additional diseases as well as coping with the effects of alcohol-related harm.

Excessive alcohol intake has been shown to further suppress the body’s immune system, leaving the individual struggling with addiction to also be more vulnerable to additional diseases.

When an elderly person’s body has to cope with both addiction, the disorders mentioned previously, and an additional disease such as the flu, pneumonia, or coronavirus, then the effects may be more life-threatening.

5. Alcohol and the brain

The way that alcohol affects the brain is varied – either directly from ethanol itself, or from the alcohol-related factors such as deficiencies.

In most cases, the most serious change in the brain as a result of excessive alcohol intake is the loss of white matter.

White matter makes up the areas of the brain holding vital neurones – essential for the millions of neural connections made that are required for normal bodily functioning.

The loss of this white matter can lead to serious changes in functioning, some of which may already be deteriorating in elderly individuals as a result of other disorders such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s.

There is evidence to suggest that the damage caused to the brain’s white matter may be reversible (11), however, this may be less successful in the case of elderly individuals and their general slowed healing speed.

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Medical Detox

Doses of pills segmented in a packet.

As alcohol is a physically addictive substance (as previously mentioned), it may be necessary in some cases for medical professionals to implement a medical intervention.

This takes place during the detoxification stage of alcohol treatment for the elderly.

A medical intervention will be employed to reduce the harmful negative effects of an alcohol withdrawal and ensure that the individual is stabilised during particularly difficult stages of this process.

A common drug used as a medical intervention for alcohol withdrawals is Librium, known for its strong effects in reducing negative physical effects.

A detox may last anywhere from 7 to 14 days or more, depending on the individual, the substance they are withdrawing from, and their history of consumption.

However, some withdrawal symptoms, especially those associated with a long-term alcohol addiction, may last up to a year or more, sometimes requiring ongoing medication, therapy, and support.

Treatment Options

An older man, writing on a laptop in a homely room


No two individuals will have the same experience with alcohol treatment for the elderly, mainly due to the different treatment programmes that individuals will progress with.

These are also often flexible, meaning that individuals may start and stop with different treatment programmes depending on their engagement and progress within each course.

However, some of the most common treatments are listed below:

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Inpatient Alcohol Rehab for Seniors

A bedroom with art on the walls and a cushion on the bed

As mentioned previously, inpatient rehabilitation is the most effective form of alcohol treatment for the elderly.

This is because residential rehab provides the most suitable environment for the specialised treatment of these individuals.

Due to all the additional risks that elderly individuals struggling with addiction may be facing, providing the highest level of support with all the suitable resources on hand is essential.

In addition, addiction treatment programmes experienced within residential rehab centres provide the highest rate of success.

However, it is important to note that in all cases of rehabilitation – inpatient or outpatient – the right level of motivation, engagement, and commitment is also required from every individual who takes advantage of these services.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment for the Elderly

An elderly couple on a bench looking over hills

As mentioned before in this article, there is a strong link between alcoholism and mental health (as well as addiction and mental health in general) as a result of underlying mental health issues.

This is known as the dual diagnosis approach and is suitable when an individual, elderly or not, is diagnosed with an addiction and an additional mental health issue at the same time.

The most common co-occurring mental health issues include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

This list is not extensive and includes many more age-related disorders when considering individuals of this demographic.

During rehabilitation, it is essential that both or all of these disorders are treated.

Without the treatment of all disorders within alcohol treatment for the elderly, individuals are unlikely to make any efficient or effective progress.

This is because the disorders are related in more ways than an individual may think, causing additional issues further down in their experience of rehab.

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Affording the Cost of Rehab

Close up of a calculator on a mobile phone. Behind on a table are some documents

For some individuals, the only thing stopping them applying for residential rehabilitative treatment may be the cost associated with this form of care.

However, there are many factors around the cost to consider.

For example, the cost of consuming alcohol is likely to continue to increase if the individual does not seek rehabilitative care in an appropriate timeframe.

Entering rehabilitative alcohol treatment for the elderly should be seen as an investment into the individual’s future.

There are some choices that can be made in rehab to reduce the cost across different areas.

For example, accommodation is one of the biggest costs of rehab, but there are multiple options for this decision within residential care.

Single occupancy rooms are likely to cost more than multiple occupancy rooms, with single rooms costing an average of £10,500 for the recommended 28-day stay compared to around £6,000 for a multiple occupancy room.

This is also evident in the cost of detox sessions, with single occupancy rooms costing around £4,500 for 10 days, or around £3,000 for a multiple occupancy room.

Other factors such as insurance come into play here – please thoroughly discuss all elements of the overall cost of rehab before beginning any form of treatment.

Rehab 4 Alcoholism is available 24/7 to answer any queries or questions relating to addiction, rehabilitation and alcohol treatment for the elderly.

If you are seeking help for yourself, an elderly friend or relative, or any other individual, please call our addiction support line on 0800 111 4108 today.

A middle aged man smiling wide


[1] Clay, S.W., 2010. Treatment of addiction in the elderly. Aging health, 6(2), pp.177-189.

[2] Group, W.A.W., 2002. The alcohol, smoking and substance involvement screening test (ASSIST): development, reliability and feasibility. Addiction, 97(9), pp.1183-1194.

[3] Bush, B., Shaw, S., Cleary, P., Delbanco, T.L. and Aronson, M.D., 1987. Screening for alcohol abuse using the CAGE questionnaire. The American journal of medicine, 82(2), pp.231-235.

[4] Koechl, B., Unger, A. and Fischer, G., 2012. Age-related aspects of addiction. Gerontology, 58(6), pp.540-544.

[5] Meyers, R.J., Miller, W.R., Hill, D.E. and Tonigan, J.S., 1998. Community reinforcement and family training (CRAFT): Engaging unmotivated drug users in treatment. Journal of Substance Abuse, 10(3), pp.291-308.

[6] Hall, W. and Zador, D., 1997. The alcohol withdrawal syndrome. The Lancet, 349(9069), pp.1897-1900.

[7] Jane‐Llopis, E.V.A. and Matytsina, I., 2006. Mental health and alcohol, drugs and tobacco: a review of the comorbidity between mental disorders and the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs. Drug and alcohol review, 25(6), pp.515-536.

[8] Regan, T.J., 1990. Alcohol and the cardiovascular system. Jama, 264(3), pp.377-381.

[9] Zakhari, S. ed., 1993. Alcohol and the endocrine system (No. 93). National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

[10] Horie, Y. and Ishii, H., 2001. Effect of alcohol on organ microcirculation: its relation to hepatic, pancreatic and gastrointestinal diseases due to alcohol. Nihon Arukoru Yakubutsu Igakkai Zasshi= Japanese Journal of Alcohol Studies & Drug Dependence, 36(5), pp.471-485.

[11] Harper, C., 1998. The neuropathology of alcohol-specific brain damage, or does alcohol damage the brain? Journal of neuropathology and experimental neurology, 57(2), pp.101-110.