The Rise of Older Women Seeking Addiction Treatment


As the Clinical Director of Sanford House, one of my duties is to collect data and put it together in an annual Performance Management Report. Age ranges of the persons served are among the statistics collected. I have found it interesting to note the increasing number of older women entering addiction treatment.


The Older Woman in Treatment

As I am an older woman myself and one who has  been gathering and reviewing such data for a number of years, I am curious as to why older women are seeking services now more than in previous years. In fact, our data shows that over 33% of women in treatment at Sanford House in the past two years were over the age of 55. Several of our residents were in their 60’s and 70’s.


Reports of clinical research consistently show that when it comes to the late onset of problem drinking, women are more likely than men to start drinking heavily later in life.


A strong relationship exists between developing a substance use disorder earlier in life and experiencing a recurrence in later life. Some people in recovery from alcohol use disorder, with long periods of sobriety, undergo a recurrence as a result of a major loss. Perhaps they have retired from an interesting job and have an excess of free time that leads to boredom and purposelessness. A high percentage of older women who reported having a history of heavy drinking at some point in their lives, also reported having widespread and social problems occurring in later life.


Here are some differences between early onset and late onset drinking:

Early onset drinkers may have:

  • Numerous short-lived periods of sobriety
  • Prior treatment or AA experiences and believe “I have failed”
  • Decreased alcohol tolerance (family members may be deceived because she does not drink as much as she used to)
  • May have alcohol related health problems, i.e., liver problems, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, dementia, etc.


Late onset drinkers are women who usually:

  • Begin drinking in their late 40s – 50s
  • Often drink in response to difficult life events
  • Are less likely to have a family history of alcohol use disorders
  • Are motivated to drink by loneliness, isolation, bereavement and depression, using alcohol to “take the edge off”

The Prognosis is Good…

While alcohol or drug problems may be more difficult to detect because of a lack of substance using history and/or related health problems, the prognosis is more promising for the late onset group. A woman with late onset alcoholism has a lifetime of relatively good coping skills to draw upon. She is more likely to have a history of dealing with problems in a healthy way prior to the onset of the alcohol problem.


Furthermore, these women are generally not as impaired physically, cognitively, or emotionally as early onset drinkers. The family/support system is generally intact and family members, once they realize there is an alcohol problem, will generally provide support during treatment and aftercare.


I enjoy working with older women at Sanford House.

As we talk, I recognize that we have a shared knowledge of the history of the past decades. I understand how shame has influenced their lives when they were younger and how it has shaped their decision to enter treatment today.


Our clients’ resiliency, coping skills, stories, experience and wisdom is something I admire. I empathize with both their physical and emotional aches and pains.  Lastly, older women appear to understand the importance of supportive communities, such as AA, and the need to give service to others as part of a purposeful life, both of which are significant elements in recovery.


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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.