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Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse in the Elderly

Alcoholism in ElderlyAlcoholism was previously thought of as a problem among young to middle aged adults and mostly in males. However, it has come to light that problems with alcohol use extends to the elderly as well. This is not only associated with the elderly who have had a drinking problem from earlier in life, but also with alcohol use that only starts in the senior years. There are many reasons for what some term an alcoholism epidemic in the elderly, some of which may be relatively unique to this age group. The main factor, however, is that alcohol abuse affects one’s health, interpersonal relationships and society as a whole irrespective of the age of the abuser.

Alcoholism is defined as a dependence on alcohol and in this light, other drinking patterns are sometimes not thought to fall within the category of alcoholism. However, alcoholism extends to all forms of alcohol abuse, whether drinking daily or binge drinking. Therefore a person who binge drinks even just once a week may still be considered as abusing alcohol.

Reasons for Alcohol Abuse in Seniors

There is never any specific reasons why some people abuse alcohol and others do not. Risk factors mainly includes :

  • Alcohol use from a young age
  • Family history of alcoholism
  • Psychological stress – divorce, grief, unemployment
  • Depression

However, not every person in these situations will abuse alcohol. Some of these risk factors may be more likely in the elderly. This is largely associated with retirement which leaves a person with free time that is not always used in a constructive manner. Retirement may sometimes be viewed in the same light as unemployment with some retired seniors feeling that their lives’ lack purpose and worth. It is further contributed by associating with other seniors, some of who may have drinking problems.

As age advances a senior may lose their life partner and experience loneliness. With the changes in living patterns and children living separately from the elders, this sense of loneliness may be further exacerbated. Depression is also not uncommon in the elderly, whether associated with underlying medical conditions or occurring for other psychosocial reasons.

An aspect that is not often taken into consideration is the use of alcohol as a sedative or analgesic (painkiller). Alcohol is known to have both these effects on the body and may be utilized as a cheap and easily available measure to ease pain associated with disease or help with sleeping problems in the elderly. It is open to abuse as the body’s tolerance to alcohol requires larger amounts of alcohol to yield the same effects.

Effects of Alcoholism on the Elderly

The psychological and socioeconomic factors of alcoholism in the elderly does not differ significantly from younger age groups. Alcoholism impairs judgement and memory and may contribute to senile dementia. It may exacerbate the symptoms of various diseases and lead to serious and even fatal complications earlier than would be the case without substance abuse. Alcohol dependence also affects the elderly in financial aspects and particularly in an age group living on limited budget and dealing with rising living costs without an income that appreciates accordingly.

The tolerance for alcohol diminishes with age. A lower body weight and less efficient metabolism of alcohol by the liver means that the elderly will experience a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC) than when they were younger. This may compromise a person’s independence by affecting the ability to drive and manage with other day-to-day activities that is otherwise difficult with advancing age. A factor that many seniors do not consider, even with moderate alcohol use, is the possibility of drug interactions. Since the elderly are more likely to be using chronic medication and contending with serious diseases, alcohol usage may adversely affect the effects of medication. This can diminish the effectiveness of medication or even cause serious complications with alcohol usage that can be life-threatening.

Dealing with Alcohol Abuse in Old Age

The treatment of alcoholism in the elderly does not differ significantly from other age groups. The key is for the abuser to first accept that they have a problem with substance abuse. In the elderly this can often be missed – some of the features of alcoholism may be mistaken for symptoms of disease, senility, depression or medication. As more elderly people now live independently, substance abuse is often missed by loved ones who may have only short periods of interaction with seniors. The main factor in any treatment regimen for substance abuse is support from friends and family – it is important for enabling an abuser to seek help, stay on treatment and continue with lifelong recovery thereafter. Sometimes institutionalization is the best option for the elderly with alcohol abuse problems. The constant attention of nursing facility staff and the strict control within these institutions prevents the elderly from accessing alcohol or using it inappropriately.


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