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The Secret Epidemic Of Alcoholism Among Seniors

The Secret Epidemic of Alcoholism Among Seniors

Did you know that older adults are hospitalized as often for alcohol related problems as they are for heart attacks? It’s true, and it’s just one of many stunning statistics that show the extent of the secret epidemic of alcoholism among seniors today.

  • There are 2.5 million older adults with an alcohol or drug problem.
  • Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.
  • Nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol related problems.
  • 14 percent of elderly emergency room admissions, and 20 percent of elderly psychiatric hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems.

The fact is that alcoholism in seniors is the result of what is can be a “perfect storm” of factors; loneliness, boredom, loss of mobility and freedom, interactions with prescription medications and increased sensitivity to alcohol due to age. When these factors converge, there is an increase in the debilitating effects of alcohol consumption and injuries are more severe.

Many factors contribute to alcoholism in seniors

Seniors have experienced significant changes in life. Age often brings with it unwanted illnesses, pain and reduced independence. Seniors may experience a loss of self-esteem or self-worth due to retirement and isolation. Partners and spouses die. Children grow up, move and are busy with young children. Seniors are faced with finding new support networks and new friends and if that doesn’t happen, it can lead to increased alcohol consumption for solace.

For those who have consumed alcohol throughout their life, aging can significantly increase sensitivity and change their tolerance levels. If a person has always had two glasses of wine at dinner with no effect, aging can change that, leaving him or her feeling “tipsy” or dizzy.

Interactions with medication can cause even more dangerous side effects, including falls. Seniors account for nearly 30% of all the medications prescribed in the United States. Nearly 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers alone are prescribed for older adults each year. Many prescriptions, over the counter medications and even herbal supplements have adverse interactions with alcohol.

What are the signs of alcoholism in seniors?

  • Drinking in spite of warning labels on prescription medications.
  • Hostility or depression.
  • Memory loss and confusion.
  • A loss of interest in hobbies or activities the senior loves.
  • Slurred speech, empty liquor and beer bottles, smell of alcohol on the breath.
  • Changes in appearance, personal hygiene.

What are the best treatments for seniors struggling with alcohol use?

Talking with the senior should always be the first step. You need to conduct some fact finding to determine the level of awareness about the drinking before deciding how to proceed. Make sure to conduct the conversation in a respectful manner, asking questions to elicit honest responses. It is important to determine if the senior:

  • Is following long held habits of drinking, ie. before and after dinner, and doesn’t clearly see what the effects are.
  • Knows there is a problem but is denying or hiding it for fear that it will further restrict his or her independence.
  • Doesn’t fully understand the dangerous interactions of alcohol and prescription medications.

Take into account cognitive changes in the senior. If the alcohol use is occurring in the midst of early onset dementia more concrete steps will have to be taken, such as removing all liquor and cold medicines from the house.

Sit with the senior and review all the medications, over-the-counter(OTC) drugs and herbal supplements he or she takes. Check the labels of all prescriptions for warnings that say “Do Not Drink Alcohol while taking this medication.”

Once the conversation has been held, there are many options for treatment:

  1. Enlist the support of the senior’s physician. He or she can emphasize the adverse effects of mixing alcohol with prescription medications, such as debilitating falls.
  2. Therapists can sometimes help. They can be seen as more objective than family members, leading the senior to understand why they drink and examining solutions.
  3. Addiction support groups like AA can provide a community of support.
  4. In-home senior care can provide companionship that will reduce loneliness and isolation. In-home care providers are trained to encourage healthy lifestyles filled with appropriate activities and good food. The time that the caregiver spends with your loved one may also lead to increased understanding of the causes behind the alcohol use and help to reduce it.

If your senior loved one is consuming too much alcohol, or experiencing increased debilitating effects from traditional amounts, take action. Dismissing it as “Mom loves her wine,” or “How can I take away Dad’s nightly scotch?” won’t help. One fall can change his or her life, and yours, forever.

If you are considering home care, call us today for a free in-home consultation. Our care managers will help answer any questions you may have, and work with your family’s needs and budget to create a custom care plan for your loved one.


Carol Pardue-Spears

Carol has worked in the healthcare field for more than forty years. As a Certified Nursing Assistant, she worked for El Camino Hospital in the cardiac unit, Los Gatos Community Hospital, The Women’s Cancer Center in Los Gatos and several home health and hospice agencies. Carol founded Family Matters in 2002 to fill a deficit she witnessed in high-quality, in-home services and care.

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