Alcohol Awareness Month and Alcohol Addiction Among the Elderly

Because April has been set aside as Alcohol Awareness Month, it is the perfect time to discuss the growing problem of alcoholism existing with senior citizens. Among the 35 million people in the USA who are age 65 or older, about 17% are affected by substance abuse, this figure also includes misuse of addictive drugs.  The number of older adults with substance abuse problems is expected to double by the year 2020.

According to many experts, when people age, sensitivity to alcohol increases and tolerance decreases. Additionally, the percent of body weight composed of water decreases and alcohol (which is water soluble) will affect an older adult more quickly and to a greater degree. Also, there is the issue of metabolism – in older people alcohol takes longer to metabolize so it accumulates in the body, and can lead to intoxication.

According to Frederick Blow of the University of Michigan and the Hazelden Butler Center for Research, “In January 2006, the leading edge of the baby-boom generation (those born during the population swell of 1946-1964) turned 60. These individuals have had more exposure to alcohol and illegal drugs, and there is more acceptance among them about using substances to ‘cure’ things. We expect to see an increase in drug and alcohol use; and more use means more problems.”

Alcoholism in the elderly is overlooked by two groups (1) healthcare providers and (2) family members. In the case of healthcare workers, they aren’t necessarily trained to spot substance abuse and overlook it, or they just assume that person is too old to be treated successfully. In the case of family members, the abuse by the elderly relative is generally written off as a temporary result of grief, loss or boredom.  Also, family members are often concerned that they might offend the elderly relative and get “written out of the will.”

Over an extended time period, drinking too much alcohol can:

  1. Lead to some cancers, liver damage, immune system disorders, and brain damage.
  2. Worsen health conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and ulcers.
  3. Cause changes in the heart and blood vessels.
  4. Cause forgetfulness that could be confused as Alzheimer’s disease.

Blow goes on to say that on the positive side there is a definite attitude shift concerning addiction and treatment which should mean that the older substance abusers will seek out the help that they need. “There is less shame and guilt associated with substance abuse now and more acceptance of treatment as a way to make things better,” he said.   And, according to Blow, older adults do somewhat better than young people in substance abuse treatments because they can recognize the many benefits derived from treatment such as “improved cognition, more independent living, more and better social connectedness, and new hobbies.” For this group of addicts, “the benefits are enormous.”

As April unfolds and Alcohol Awareness begins, we should all take action in our communities to raise awareness of alcohol problems among the elderly.  We can start by keeping track of the elderly relative’s drinking and setting limits, and by asking their doctors to talk to them about the benefits of drinking less and/or quitting all together.

For additional tips on how to help an elderly family member with a drinking problem, call one of the social workers at Kabb Law, an Elder Law & Care Firm – 216-991-KABB (5222).