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Help Abounds for Seniors Caught in the Risky Rut of Over-Drinking

Alcohol abuse among seniors often goes unrecognized – even by loved ones, close friends, caregivers, and physicians – and, as a result, is often misdiagnosed and untreated. That’s partly because problem drinking among seniors can easily be mistaken for signs of aging such as imbalance, falls, and difficulty sleeping or other conditions common among the elderly such as dementia, depression, and diabetes, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Abuse of alcohol among the elderly, however, has emerged as one of the most rapidly growing health problems in the United States, the council says.

But as America marks Alcohol Awareness Month in April, these sobering realities should not be cause for despair: Elderly people with drinking problems – about 80,000 seniors nationwide are alcoholics, the federal government reports – can tap into a wealth of resources for help. And the good news is the National Institute on Aging has found that elderly people who seek help for problem drinking, especially programs specifically tailored to seniors’ needs, have an excellent chance of recovery.

As with all alcoholics – and, for that matter, anyone suffering an addiction – Step 1 is acknowledging the problem, and elderly people with a drinking problem may not recognize they have a problem nearly as quickly as others who know them well.

The beneficiary representative expressed shock and dismay when the administrator at a boarding home increased the price for placement from the $3,500 in her husband’s contract to $5,000 because he required more care than anticipated. The beneficiary representative explained that she lacked the additional $1,500.

Experts list these signs of possible problem drinking among the elderly:

  • Often consuming multiple drinks in a day
  • Lying about or concealing drinking habits
  • Drinking alone
  • Slurring speech
  • Becoming irritable or resentful when not drinking
  • Falling frequently
  • Suffering disorientation, confusion, or forgetfulness
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Eating poorly or suffering malnutrition
  • Drinking to calm nerves, ease worries, or cope with depression, grief, or other loss
  • Gulping drinks
  • Building a tolerance to alcohol
  • Enduring negative medical, social, or financial consequences caused by drinking

Loved ones and friends should keep an eye out not only for signs, but also for possible causes of a senior’s drinking too much. The National Institute on Aging reports common causes of over-drinking among the elderly include failing health, grief over the loss of a loved one or friend, boredom, anxiety, and depression. But what can begin as a drink here and there to reduce stress or ease sadness can easily slide into problem drinking.

Sometimes, the solution can be as simple as asking elderly loved ones to open up about mourning a loss, encouraging them to get involved in activities to reduce loneliness and the tedium of so much time on their hands, or referring them to support groups.

If these steps fail to stop problem drinking, treatment can include, Alcoholics Anonymous, or other 12-step programs, professional counseling, outpatient treatment, or even inpatient treatment. It’s important to recognize that treatment needs – and barometers of success in treatment – can be different in some key respects for seniors than for younger people with drinking problems. From the outset, it’s critical to recognize and accommodate seniors’ hearing or vision impairments, medical conditions, mobility or transportation issues, and possible cognitive decline.

A 2015 study by researchers at California State University, San Bernadino, found treatment of seniors with drinking problems is most successful when providers establish excellent rapport, respect, communication, specialized assessment of needs, individualized case management, and social support.

When does a senior need help for problem drinking? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) warns that healthy adults over age 65 who do not take medications should not exceed three drinks a day or seven drinks in a week. Because alcohol more quickly impairs older adults than it did when they were younger, the NIAAA says, drinking more than recommended amounts increases the risks of falls, car crashes, and other injuries. Heavy drinking can also worsen health problems common in older adults, including diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver disease, osteoporosis, memory difficulties, depression, and other mood disorders.

The institute advises that drinking any alcohol poses the risk of dangerous, sometimes even fatal interactions among seniors taking medications including aspirin, cold and allergy medications, cough syrup, sleeping pills, painkillers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds.

So, if you’re a senior who suspects you may have a drinking problem – or you love or care for someone who may – avail yourself of help for a healthier life free of the very real dangers of over-drinking among the elderly.