Alcoholism in seniors has been called a silent epidemic. Experts can't agree on exactly how many elderly people suffer from a drinking problem. Some suggest the number is about 6%.
Others say it is closer to 15%, or even 30%. The problem already places a large burden on the health care system, and as more and more baby boomers become seniors, the problem will escalate. Even today, alcohol related diseases and injuries put more elderly people in the hospital than heart attacks.
Older people are less able to metabolize alcohol, so even relatively small amounts may have a greater impact than when they were younger.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many elderly people have a drinking problem because many seniors live in isolation, have few friends and don't work. Many of today's seniors are baby boomers. They grew up in an era when drinking was the social norm but there was a stigma attached to people who could not control their alcohol intake. That means they may feel too ashamed or guilty to admit they have a problem, or they may simply deny it.
Sometimes friends and family willingly turn a blind eye in the belief that the senior has "earned the right to drink as much as he or she wants", and should be able to live out their life the way they want.
Unfortunately, excessive drinking not only reduces a person's lifespan, it also greatly reduces the quality of life.
Medical Problems in Alcoholic Seniors
It may be difficult for health care providers to diagnose alcohol problems in seniors. Often elderly people don't want to honestly disclose the amount they drink to their doctor.
Many of the symptoms of alcohol abuse mimic the symptoms of diseases associated with the elderly and with mental health problems. Falling, memory loss, and social withdrawal may simply be chalked up as a normal part of the aging process.
Some of those signs include depression, falls, bruising, poor nutrition, lack of hygiene, incontinence, absent-mindedness, anxiety and an increased ability to drink more. Unfortunately, alcoholic seniors are also at a higher risk of physical and financial abuse.
Seniors have as a rule a lower bone density, so even a simple fall can have devastating and even life threatening consequences. Medical staff are often so engaged in treating the crisis they don't probe into it's underlying cause.
Some commonly prescribed medications can have serious side effects when combined with alcohol, and people who are drinking may forget or simply choose not to take their medication.
Alcohol when combined with the already slowed response time in seniors can contribute to traffic accidents.
Older people who drink heavily have a great chance of suffering a stroke, heart attack or high blood pressure.
Failure to eat properly or follow good hygienic procedures may increase complications of already existing health problems.
Elderly alcoholics are more likely to suffer from dementia and depression.
Who's at Risk?
In general, men are more likely to abuse alcohol then women, but because of their size and different metabolism, women may experience more profound negative effects. Women are also more likely to begin drinking later in life after their children are gone.
For both sexes, people who had been married and lost their spouse through death or divorce are more likely to engage in excessive alcohol consumption.
People who are well off or middle class are more likely to drink too much.
People who are suffering from the loss of a loved one or close friends may turn to alcohol for comfort. Also at risk are people who are no longer employed or suffer from a disability and have diminished self worth.
Treatment for Problem Drinking in Seniors
Everyone connected to a senior, whether it's friends, family or health care providers should be on the lookout for signs of problem drinking.
They include increased tolerance to alcohol, antisocial behavior, depression and denying there's a problem.
A person who abuses alcohol may find they physically crave a drink and are unable to stop even when they want to.
Sometimes a test may be to invite a senior to an event that he or she would normally love to attend. If they refuse because there will be no alcohol served, it's a strong clue there may be problem.
There are treatment programs available for seniors, but unfortunately there are not enough of them and it may be difficult to convince an elderly person to go into treatment.
On a positive note seniors in alcohol rehabilitation programs have a good success rate. That is due, in part, because it forces them out of the house and into a social setting with people who share their problem and experience.
A good outcome begins with knowing the risks of excessive drinking in seniors.