Let’s talk about alcoholism among our elderly.
Elderly Alcohol Abuse is more common than you may think.
Old age is definitely not for sissies. Not only do we experience wrinkling, stooping, graying of our hair and the decline of physical health, many of us also lose our autonomy.
- the ability to live our lives our own way. Some express this as a loss of identity and
- a lessening of personal pride and quality of life. And, we lose many of our friends, family and acquaintances to death. The longer we live, the more it seems that most everyone we once knew is gone. This can lead to feelings of being alone and lonely.
And, loneliness is a HUGE and depressing emotion!
After experiencing multiples of loss, many elderly people seek to block the helpless, hopeless feelings with a drink here and a drink there. A drink may be used to achieve relaxation and thereby relieve stress and allow an easy passage into sleep. This solution can be self-prescribed, and there is no legal restriction controlling the amount one can consume. And therein lies the opportunity for many elderly social drinkers to convert themselves into problem drinkers. Enough so that recent studies report that alcoholism among the elderly is a large and neglected health problem. Older widowers have the highest risk of alcohol abuse, and they have the highest risk of accidents, suicides and health problems related to excessive drinking.
There is a problem with diagnosing alcoholism in the elderly; many symptoms are concealed by other age-related health disorders. However, there is also a reluctance amongst professionals to diagnose alcohol related problems – either because of the stigma attached, or because it is easier to avoid the conflict that is sure to result from such a diagnosis. There is also a desire to treat this issue lightly because, “they’ve lost so much, so let’s not take this away, too!”
But, it is a big deal! Recent studies report that some 70% of hospital admissions of elderly people are for alcohol-related problems, and 1/3 of all suicides are alcohol related.
It is also important to recognize that the cost of alcohol-related health care in North America may be as high as $90 Billion.
There are danger signals, or clues, that provide us with some warning that our elderly friends and family members may be experiencing problems with alcohol. They are:
• neglected personal appearance
• smell of liquor or mouthwash on their breath
• slurred speech, hoarse voice
• weight loss / malnutrition
• unexplained bruises, repeated falls
• gaps in memory, confusion
• loss of interest in prior pleasures
Grief and Alcohol
Experiencing the deaths of loved ones has a debilitating effect on bodies as well as on minds. Any chemical that alters the normal process of grief serves to prolong it and create other destructive problems. Alcohol is a chemical and a drug – ethyl alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is known as ethanol. Ethanol is a central nervous system depressant, which increases the intensity of grief. It momentarily sedates, but ultimately leaves the nervous system in disorder, thereby complicating the ability to cope with life. And, alcohol actually increases insomnia, it does not cure it. Even if one drinks enough to pass out, the quality of the sleep experienced is poor. As well, alcohol can be very addictive to elderly persons who use it to escape from reality. As a problem drinker moves along the continuum – from use to abuse – he or she becomes tolerant of alcohol, requiring larger amounts to achieve the same effect, and becomes more susceptible to a host of liver and nerve damage, inflammation of the stomach, altered brain cell function, heart disease, and increased risk of pneumonia and other lung disease.
However, it must be noted that – once the slide into chemical dependence is halted –older people have the highest rate of success and the greatest sobriety after intensive treatment. An Early intervention involving counseling and behavioral training can help some problem drinkers who are not yet fully dependent on alcohol.
Alcohol + Loneliness = Much More Loneliness
Supportive treatment is very helpful for those who want to lead an addiction-free life. Supportive treatments include individual and group therapy, education / training about the disease concept of addiction, family support groups, attending Alcoholics Anonymous and / or Al-Anon, relapse prevention training, etc.
A high percentage of suicides are associated with substance abuse and alcoholism. It is a bad statistical group to be in.
Our intent is not to advocate for the return of Prohibition, since alcohol is not a problem for a majority of the population. We do advocate for awareness and education. For instance, more people in Canada and the USA use alcohol than any other drug, including tobacco. And, even though the amount consumed per person has been gradually declining, alcohol-related problems have not declined. More than 10% of current social drinkers will abuse and become dependent upon alcohol – and, that number increases dramatically among the elderly. This is true, even though there is a barrier of silence in place, a barrier supported by professionals as well as friends, family, and acquaintances.
What Can Be Done?
First, public acknowledgment and open discussion will help to reduce the heavy stigma attached to the concept of alcoholism and the elderly – after all, who can think of Granny or Gramps as a drunk? Especially if they lived a long life without an apparent alcohol problem!
When we age we face many changes. Our bodies begin to slow down, our values may change, we may face the loss of loved ones or we may worry about being alone in our retirement. Find others who are experiencing the same or similar problems. The emotional reason has to do with the meaning behind what you are doing. The way you
harm yourself may be very personal; it may include a number of meaningful emotions camouflaged into one destructive behavior.
1. if you have lost hope, generate hope through meeting others who have gone
2. if you are punishing yourself, work on self-esteem
3. learn to communicate your feelings
4. get your needs met in more direct ways
5. work out your conflicts
6. find out what you want from people
7. find out what the self-destructive behavior really means. If you find it out, the
pressure towards self-harm will diffuse.
When you have a real desire to accomplish something, an initiative should only require an occasional shove — but you may need to give it a nudge now and again.
If you suspect someone you love has a problem with Elderly Alcohol Abuse, please contact us for help.