Fumbling. Slurred speech. Impaired coordination. Are these signs of dementia? Or the red flags of a more serious problem: alcohol addiction?
Alcoholism is a progressive disorder that afflicts about 2.4 million older Americans. While a limited amount of alcohol is fine for many seniors, many drink much more. In fact, a survey of over 12,000 seniors, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, found that approximately 9% of them consumed unhealthy amounts of alcohol.
Why are seniors vulnerable to alcohol abuse?
Aging presents a whole range of factors that may increase a senior’s risk of alcohol abuse. For instance, seniors may be dealing with the stress of a significant loss, like the death of a partner or close friend. Others feel isolated, lonely, and bored because of limited social interaction. A shift in self-image can create problems, too; it can be emotionally difficult to go from being a valued employee to a retiree who’s no longer needed.
Stress also plays a role in developing alcohol addiction. Seniors can be burdened by the financial realities of reduced incomes. Anxiety about living with serious health conditions, like heart disease or diabetes, can lead to alcohol abuse as well.
Why is excessive drinking especially harmful to seniors?
Alcohol abuse is harmful at any age; but drinking too much as a senior is especially dangerous. For example, adults over 50 were more impaired than younger people who had consumed the same amount of alcohol, according to research from the University of Florida. This suggests that older individuals who’ve been drinking likely have slower reaction times while driving. But there are other, equally dangerous results when a senior drinks excessively, including:
- Complication or worsening of existing health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure
- Inability to properly take medication they’ve been prescribed for medical conditions
- Negative interactions between alcohol and prescription drugs they may take
- Increase in the risk of falling and other accidents
- Increase in the risk of becoming the victim of elder abuse
What are the warning signs of alcohol abuse in seniors?
- Drinking to calm anxiety or alleviate depression
- Frequently consuming more than one alcoholic drink a day
- Lying or being evasive about the amount they drink
- Becoming moody or irritable when access to alcohol is unavailable or denied
- Experiencing frequent injuries or accidents, such as falling or leaving the stove on
Why is alcohol abuse in seniors so hard to detect?
Younger people are more likely to interact with those in a position to notice problems. Older Americans tend to drink more in their homes, in contrast to the younger set that is more likely to party at clubs or bars—and more likely to get in trouble with the law. In other words, older people are not as likely to start fights or get cited for public drunkenness. Seniors are also often living as retirees, so they have no workplace supervisors or colleagues to detect an addiction problem. Many also live alone, with no spouse or family members around to notice how much they’re drinking.
Another challenge is that alcohol impairment mimics the common conditions of aging, such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease. That makes it especially hard for family, friends, and caregivers to understand that addiction might be an issue. Even primary care doctors can mistake the signs of a drinking problem, attributing them to another condition.
Can an elderly person be treated?
No one is ever too old for recovery or too set in their ways. It’s also dangerous to adopt the mindset that says “well, Grandma has been drinking like that her whole life. Why stop her now?” The fact is that if it’s causing problems—physically, emotionally, or financially—then it’s time to seek help. An elderly addict might accidentally overdose from a prescription drug, experience a serious alcohol and drug interaction, be kicked out of assisted living or drain a retirement account too early. By taking action now, you will help them live out their remaining years with the dignity and hope they deserve.
Is any type of rehab right for a senior?
The same types of treatment—talk therapy, support groups, etc.—used for younger people also work well with older alcoholics. However, there may be special considerations when it comes to finding alcohol addiction treatment facilities for seniors. One reason is that mainstream treatment centers offer help to a wide range of people. That means Grandma might find herself in group therapy next to a young heroin addict… maybe not the best fit.
Another challenge is that elderly addicts often come to recovery centers with their own set of specific health issues that can be barriers to treatment. For example, an 80–year–old man with a wheelchair might need special transportation to take him to and from treatment sessions. An elderly woman may require an aide to assist with daily tasks, such as using the bathroom or walking up the stairs, while in residential treatment.
If you’re looking into addiction treatment for a senior, it’s essential to find addiction specialists who are trained to handle the unique issues of the geriatric population. You’ll want to find a treatment facility able to handle an elderly patient’s needs. Because so many factors play a role in successful alcohol addiction recovery for seniors, a case manager who will act as a go-to coordinator for all aspects of treatment can be invaluable.
So what are you waiting for?
Seniors deserve to live a life free from the strangling hold of alcohol addiction. Don’t be deterred by the common excuse that they’re too set-in-their-ways and delay treatment for this serious disorder—one that is not only reducing their quality of life, but likely shortening it as well. Find a qualified addiction specialist to help your loved one today.