by Joan Blumenfeld, MS, LPC
Alcohol and the elderly are a risky combination. Older adults metabolize alcohol very differently from younger people. Consuming alcohol in moderation at age 50 may have a modest effect. But the same amount imbibed at age 80 can seriously impair judgment, balance and the ability to manage daily life.
Lifelong alcoholics will likely experience brain and liver disease by the time they reach their 70s and 80s, while some older adults begin drinking in their later years, quietly but heavily, to alleviate the grief and depression that results from the death of a spouse or family member, as well as other big and small losses that accrue with advancing years.
So it behooves those of us who care about the elderly to take a close look at the problems caused by excessive drinking, and also at the available treatment options.
Here are some warning signs of a problem with alcohol:
- Frequent falls
- Car accidents
- Slurred speech
- Missed appointments
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Poor nutrition
- General confusion
Notice how the warning signs of alcohol abuse look very much like the warning signs for Alzheimer’s disease (indeed, both may be present in some cases). One way to discern the difference is to consider the elder’s relationship with alcohol. Is there a history? Are they hiding their drinking? Are they making excuses for needing a drink? Do they get angry if you discuss their drinking? Are they drinking at inappropriate times of the day or night? Are they drinking more with less effect? Does alcohol make them aggressive? Are they focused on getting a drink? Are they unable to enjoy a social occasion without alcohol?
Excessive drinking among the elderly often goes undetected because they are usually drinking alone at home. They don’t hang out in bars or get rowdy and disruptive in public places. They are less likely to be picked up for drunken driving because they frequently don’t drive at night, may have limited their daytime driving as well, and in some cases don’t drive at all.
Families may inadvertently enable alcoholic elders. Oh, they’re old, the thinking goes. Let them be. We can’t stop their drinking anyway.
There is help available. Your local Agency on Aging is a good resource for information and referrals. There are a few respected residential treatment facilities scattered throughout the country, with treatment programs specifically designed to meet the needs of older people. And, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) are well-regarded national groups with chapters in most communities.
Older adults with drinking problems “lead lives of quiet desperation” (as Henry David Thoreau put it). They are self-medicating daily just to get by. But alcohol is a depressant of the central nervous system — these elderly drinkers are, in fact, only adding to their feelings of isolation and despair. With skilled interventions, lots of caring support and proactive problem-solving, it is definitely possible to help elders have a better quality of life, alcohol free, in their later years.
Pearl of wisdom: The Internet is an outstanding source of information. Google “Alcoholism and the Elderly” and browse around. Be a catalyst — start the healing process for an older adult with a drinking problem and for all those affected by it.
Joan Blumenfeld, MS, LPC, is a Geriatric Care Manager practicing in Fairfield County, CT. For information, visit www.joanblumenfeld.com. © Joan Blumenfeld 2013.