When we think of addicts, we tend to think of certain types: the skinny guy who just left his vacationing parents' house with their TV on the back of his bike; the party girl from college who didn't get the memo and became a party woman; the two-martini-lunch business person; the rich, stressed-out, pill-popping housewife; and the young Hollywood stars featured on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew."

But there's another group of people who suffer more quietly with drug abuse and alcoholism: older adults. These days, drug and alcohol treatment centers are seeing a big increase in adults over 55 who need help with addiction.

The Hanley Center, a treatment facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, is a pioneer in treating older adults. Dr. Barbara Krantz, medical director and CEO at the Hanley Center, says that its older patients confirm the alarming statistics. "Between 2002 and 2005," she says, "the use of illegal drugs increased 63 percent among adults over 55." Dr. Krantz says that by 2030, about a third of illegal drug users will be 55 and older.

Why the shift? "As baby boomers age, the number of older adults with addiction problems continues to grow. That generation is much more open to using substances, and they continue to do so," says Dr. Joe Hromco, Ph.D., director of clinical operations at LifeWorks NW in Oregon, which offers addiction services to people in all age groups.

Being a baby boomer isn't the only factor, though. As people grow older, they tend to use more prescriptions for pain and anxiety. Those are the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

"Alcohol is still the No. 1 [abused] substance for every age group. Marijuana is the surprising second, and prescription drugs are the third," Dr. Hromco says.

Raise your awareness

Do you think an older family member or friend may have a problem with addiction? Look for these warning signs:

  • Drinking combined with isolation: Sure, older folks aren't usually as active as younger people, but if your loved one is drinking alone at home, you should be concerned.
  • Doctor shopping: Patients often go to different doctors to get prescriptions. Most of the time, the individual doctors don't know what the patient has already been prescribed by another doctor, which can lead to overmedication. Abusers may take advantage of the health care system this way.
  • Long-lasting use of the same prescription: Benzodiazepines (a kind of tranquilizer), such as Valium, Xanax and Klonopin, are intended for short-term use (two to six weeks), according to Dr. Krantz. "I have patients who've been on them for 10 or 15 years," she says.

What to do

Don't ignore the problem, says Dr. Hromco. "Our attitude toward older people's addiction is often to say 'She's 70 years old, and she's lonely. I can't take her alcohol away from her.' In fact, that's a dangerous attitude. Older people with addiction are suffering, and they can improve their lives significantly with treatment."

When talking to someone you think might be addicted, avoid using critical or blaming statements. Instead, Dr. Hromco recommends the Question, Persuade and Refer method:

  1. Question: Ask direct questions about the person's use of the substance, but be careful not to judge. For example, instead of saying, "Haven't you had enough to drink?" ask, "Have you noticed how you act differently when you've been drinking?" And instead of saying, "You shouldn't be taking this," ask, "What do you think about the number of medications you're taking?"
  2. Persuade: This step is about opening the door to change. Use statements such as "You don't have to do this—there are other options."
  3. Refer: Let your loved one know that help is available. Try saying, "Let's talk to your doctor about this," or "There are people who can help you."

Addiction is scary and unpredictable. But, experts agree that treatment works well for older adults. And there's a lot of joy waiting for them on the sober side of life.

Published on April 15, 2009; updated on May 20, 2014.