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Alcohol Services
ALCOHOL AND THE ELDERLY

by Nello Pozzobon Jr. MSSW, LICSW

Alcohol dependency among people over 60 is far more common than most people realize. According to a recently published report from the Medical College of Wisconsin, more elderly people are hospitalized for alcohol-related problems than for heart attacks. Many older people with alcohol problems have been heavy drinkers for many years and with adequate medical care have somehow lived to old age, but eventually, alcohol use will begin to take a heavier toll on both the older persons physical and cognitive functioning. Also among the elderly, are persons who do not have a prior history of alcohol abuse. Due to a number of situational factors, stresses, and losses, their alcohol abuse or dependency, may be described as late onset.

SITUATIONAL, STRESS, AND LOSS FACTORS

When the situational, stress, and loss factors of aging have been too great, come too fast, and at the wrong time, many elderly persons have turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. People who have recently lost a spouse are thought to make up the largest segment of the "late-onset" drinkers. Other people may develop a drinking problem later in life due to retirement, boredom, loneliness, lowered income, or failing health. The elderly are also faced with the phenomenon of the national addiction to youth. Aging is equated with obsolescence and worthlessness. People who have been vital, contributing members of society, can suddenly find themselves replaced.

Another common denominator faced by the elderly is loss; the elderly must constantly deal with loss. There is the loss that comes from the illnesses and deaths of family and friends. The deaths of others also leads to questioning about loss of self, anticipation of one's own death. There is the loss that comes from the geographical separation of family. There is the loss of money, which has obvious implications in vital areas of self-esteem.

There are the losses which accompany retirement; loss of status, gratification, and often most importantly, identity. There is also the loss of body functions and skills, which may include a loss of attractiveness. Another loss is of sensation. The most powerful loss, the loss no elderly person is prepared to understand or accept, is the loss of their ability to think. There are also biological stresses faced by the elderly due to physical problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis and psychological problems such as depression. Unfortunately it is often difficult to identify alcohol problems or dependency in an elderly person for a number of reasons.

IDENTIFYING ALCOHOL PROBLEMS IN THE ELDERLY

One reason that it is difficult to identify alcohol problems in the elderly is that it is often easier for them to "hide" the problem. Many live alone, and don't have anyone else depending on them, so they can not get "caught" by another family member, or by errors at work, now that they are retired. They may also no longer drive, or at least not as much, and as a result, the alcohol problems may be less likely to get them into trouble with the law. Perhaps the main reason for the difficulty in recognizing an alcohol problem in the elderly person is that many of the symptoms of alcoholism such as, depression, memory loss, confusion, unsteady gait, reduced physical capabilities in general, are misdiagnosed and confused with other signs of advanced age.

Because many elderly persons are reluctant to seek or receive professional help, there are some signs which can help concerned family members or friends recognize a drinking problem of an elderly loved one:

* A change in appearance and grooming

* A significant personality shift, either toward more aggressive or toward an overall slowing down

* Expressive sleepiness or insomnia

* A flushed face or bloated appearance

* A desire to be alone

* A need to explain memory lapses by making up stories

* Alcohol on the person's breath

* Hidden or empty bottles

For the elderly person who is not reluctant to receive professional services, they might want to seek help if they become aware of the following:

* Drink to calm your nerves, forget your worries, or reduce depression

* Lose interest in food

* Consume your drinks quickly

* Lie, or try to hide your drinking habits

* Drink alone more often

* Hurt yourself, or someone else, while drinking

* Were drunk more than three or four times last year

* Need more alcohol to get "high"

* Feel irritable, resentful, or unreasonable when you are not drinking

* Have medical, social, or financial problems caused by drinking

Getting Help:

Whatever the type of alcoholism present, intervention and treatment is important. All too often we are likely to dismiss the elderly with "what do they have to live for anyway". The quality of life left to any of us, whether it's 15, 10, or 5 years, or just 1 more year, would better be the paramount concern. Once they decide to seek help, older alcoholics, particularly those who started drinking later in life, tend to stay with treatment programs and respond better than younger people. They are able to rediscover strengths, get involved with people, and discover life is worth living, at whatever age.

You can begin getting help by calling your family doctor or clergy member. Your local health department or social services agencies also can help. The alcohol-dependent person, or someone close to the person can telephone the National Council on Alcoholism's Help Line at 1-800-NCA-CALL.

Other Resources:

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
475 Riverside Drive, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10115
(212) 870-3400

Alcoholics Anonymous (Cape Cod)
396 Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
(508) 775-7060 or 1-800-637-6237

Cape Cod Council on Alcoholism
569 Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
(508) 771-0132

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse
and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
6000 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892
(301) 443-3860

National Council on Alcoholism
and Drug Dependence (NCADD)
12 West 21st Street
8th Floor
New York, NY 10010
NCA-CALL (800-622-2255)

National Institute on Aging (NIA)
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898

   

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