Alcoholism in our Aging Population

Posted on June 9th, 2012

Gone are the days when cocktail hour began promptly at 5:00 and any refined lady or gentlemen had a drink to wind down from the day. For older generations, drinking on a daily basis is not unusual. A gin and tonic or a couple fingers of scotch is just the normal way to usher in the evening and to relax before dinner. A lot of older adults still practice that habit, while others have become chained to it. Alcoholism in the elderly is not uncommon, but it is underreported. How can you tell the difference between generational social drinking and a true problem with addiction? And how do you help an elderly relative or friend who may be an alcoholic?

How Do You Know if an Older Adult Has a Problem?

Inappropriate use of alcohol falls into two categories: abuse and dependence. According to the American Psychiatric Association, abuse is illustrated by failing to fulfill a major obligation because of alcohol; using alcohol in a dangerous situation, having legal problems because of alcohol, or using alcohol in spite of negative social problems. Dependence, which is more serious, is indicated by a developed tolerance for alcohol, withdrawal symptoms, using more alcohol than was intended, trying unsuccessfully to stop drinking, spending a significant amount of time getting and using alcohol and in recovering from the effects of drinking, giving up social events to drink, or using alcohol even though it causes physical or psychological symptoms. Three or more of these indicators signals a dependence on alcohol.

If you are very close to an older person, it may not be too hard to recognize the above warning signs. However, one problem with the underreporting of elderly alcohol abuse is that many live alone and many are socially isolated. When there are any suspicions whatsoever, you should spend time with this adult to determine if alcohol is really a problem. Another reason it can be difficult to recognize alcoholism is that symptoms of aging can coincide with symptoms of alcohol abuse.

Why Should You Intervene?

Yet another reason why alcoholism goes unreported for many elderly is because others are unwilling to intrude. Too many people close to the older adult fear butting in to their lives and think it is better to respect their lifestyle choices. It is often believed that no harm will be done. The truth is that alcohol abuse can have profound health effects on the elderly. They metabolize, or break down alcohol, more slowly than they did when they were younger, so it stays longer in the body and the effects of being drunk persist longer. A certain amount of alcohol consumed will make an elderly person more inebriated than it would have at a younger age. So, many older adults do not realize that they can drink less to achieve the same effect. There are many ways in which alcohol is very detrimental to the health of an elderly person:

  • It can interact with medications. If an older adult is lying about how much alcohol they consume, their doctor may not know that they are susceptible to dangerous interactions. Mixing alcohol with many medications can cause sleepiness, nausea, confusion, vomiting, and headaches.
  • Drinking affects psychiatric conditions. It can exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other conditions.
  • Alcohol worsens existing conditions like congestive heart failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, memory problems, dementia, and liver disease.
  • Using alcohol increases the likelihood of accidents such as burns, drowning, car crashes, and falls.
  • Excessive alcohol in the system can cause strokes, an increased risk of cancer, and osteoporosis.

Can Alcoholism in the Elderly be Treated?

It is very important to intervene when you suspect that an older friend or family member is abusing alcohol. If you do not step in, the consequences can be devastating. There is no reason that an elderly person cannot recover from alcohol dependence and go on to live for many more happy and healthy years. Although it isn’t easy, a confrontation is necessary. If the adult denies that there is a problem, involve other loved ones to help convince them to seek a professional diagnosis.

Not many treatment centers for alcohol and drug abuse have programs specifically for the elderly, but some do. Those that are targeted at older adults are more successful in leading elderly alcoholics into recovery from their addiction. They typically use less confrontational methods, take treatment slowly, and are equipped to deal with the unique medical needs of the elderly. For this reason, it is important to take the time to find a good and reputable treatment facility that can help your older loved one.

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