Alcoholism among Older Adults

Addiction can affect anybody at any age, but many people are surprised at the high rate of problem drinking among older adults. Alcohol abuse among the elderly is still lower than among the younger population, but the rate of alcoholism is increasing so quickly that it is often referred to as a “silent epidemic.”

In the United States, nearly half of all nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems, according to (NCADD), the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Alcohol sends as many people to emergency rooms as heart attacks.

Similarly, Mercer’s Institute in Dublin, Ireland, reports that alcohol use disorders are becoming more common in elderly people around the world, although the problem is frequently undetected and misdiagnosed.

Naming the Reasons

For some people, alcohol abuse is a lifelong problem that only gets worse with age, but many individuals develop late-onset alcoholism after years of sobriety or light social drinking. Triggers for turning to alcohol in later years include loneliness, anxiety, failing physical health, boredom, lack of purpose, and grief over loss of friends and loved ones.

Alcohol affects older people differently. Even though drinking habits may remain stable over the years, the impact is more powerful because the body isn’t as effective at metabolizing alcohol.

Gender Differences

Alcoholism is about five times more likely to affect men, but because women don’t metabolize alcohol as effectively, they tend to get drunk easily and are more likely to develop drinking problems in their later years.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of alcohol abuse are frequently overlooked by medical providers who may attribute symptoms to diabetes, depression, fatigue, dementia or other illnesses that frequently affect the elderly.

Physicians may be hesitant to confront their elderly patients about alcohol abuse or to present them with options for treatment. This is unfortunate because allowing the problem to continue unchecked increases the risk of serious complications such as malnutrition, anemia or liver damage, or potentially fatal results of combining alcohol with painkillers, sleeping pills, antidepressants, or even aspirin.

If you think an older adult may have a problem with excessive drinking, consider the following signs and symptoms:

  • Loss of balance
  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Drinking alone
  • Slurred speech
  • Hiding drinking or lying about drinking
  • Irritability when not drinking
  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor hygiene
  • Unexplained bumps and bruises
  • Frequent stomach problems, including nausea and vomiting
  • Incontinence
  • Sleep problems

Drug and Alcohol Treatment: It’s Never too Late

Families of older alcoholics often look the other way because they consider alcoholism among the elderly impossible to treat, or they think it’s too late or too difficult for older folks to make such a change.

Elderly problem drinkers are often hesitant to seek help due to concerns about stigma and potential loss of personal privacy. They may be concerned about bringing shame to their children or grandchildren.

It’s never too late to seek drug and alcohol treatment or rehab. Sooner is better than later because the risks of accidents, high blood pressure, heart problems and other serious consequences are higher for the elderly, and health problems are more debilitating.

In reality, the success rate is good for older people in drug and alcohol treatment or rehab. Once in treatment, older drinkers have an excellent chance at recovery because they are more likely to stick to the treatment program.

Talking it Over

If you suspect an elderly family member has a drinking problem, encourage him to seek drug and alcohol treatment or rehab.

Choose a time when your loved one is sober. Speak to her openly and directly, but always be respectful. Don’t coddle, but don’t be confrontational. Don’t blame or shame, and avoid words that ring of stigma or stereotypes, such as “alcoholic,” “drunk,” or “addict.”

If your loved one is resistant, approach the problem gradually. If you’re uncomfortable addressing the subject, seek the help of a trusted friend, doctor or pastor. Professional intervention may be needed if your loved one isn’t willing to seek help.

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