Alcohol and aging don’t mix well. And, unfortunately, problems related to alcohol use and the elderly are quite common. In our recent conversations with several trust officers and other professionals who help elder clients, this is one of their top concerns.
So, first, since this tends to be a somewhat “hush hush” issue, let’s set the stage. It’s important to understand the realities, both for families and professionals who help elders.
Alcohol and Aging: The Scope of the Issue
The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD) says even when elders live in nursing homes or assisted living, nearly 50% have “alcohol-related problems.” The NCADD points out that up to 11 percent of elderly hospital admissions are because of drug- and alcohol-related issues. This is a similar rate to elderly people being admitted to the hospital because of heart attacks, which can also be caused by prolonged alcoholism. The alcohol-related admissions number increases to 14% for emergency room visitations, and the rate at which the elderly are admitted to psychiatric hospitals due to alcohol or drugs is 20%.
Another interesting statistic that we see play out a lot is that 10-15% of people don’t start to drink heavily until older age. Isolation and associated depression may be a big factor driving this. Many are social drinkers who develop dependence over time. Or, they were previously able to hide their drinking issues that now come to light because of health issues, falls, etc.
This issue crosses demographics, but the highest rate of alcoholism is in widowers over the age of 75.
Alcohol and Aging Problems: Beyond the Numbers
The statistics above start to make the picture clear. But, for anyone who has dealt with this, you know the problems go much further. Some of the reasons why drinking can be such a big issue as we get older:
- Increased sensitivity to alcohol
- More health problems (caused by drinking over time, exacerbated by current drinking or causing problems when combined with drinking)
- Medication interactions
- Falls and safety issues (alcohol making worse an existing vulnerability for elders)
- Memory issues and cognitive impairment (caused by drinking, and also complicating drinking, treatment, and related issues)
Many times the damage caused by drinking only becomes apparent in later years, if the person was able to “manage” or hide the drinking before. Alcohol use can:
- Lead to some kinds of cancer, liver damage, immune system disorders, and brain damage.
- Worsen various health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, memory loss and mood disorders.
- Make some medical problems hard for doctors to find and treat. For example, alcohol causes changes in the heart and blood vessels. These changes can dull pain that might be a warning sign of a heart attack.
- Cause some older people to be forgetful and confused.
Another major concern with alcohol and aging is mixing medications and alcohol. Many medicines can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol. And, most older adults take at least a few medications. Here are just a few examples of specific risks:
- If you take aspirin and drink, your risk of stomach or intestinal bleeding is increased.
- When combined with alcohol, antihistamines may cause excessive drowsiness.
- Alcohol used with large doses of acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) may cause liver damage.
- Some medicines, such as some cough syrups and laxatives, have a high alcohol content.
- Alcohol used with some sleeping pills, pain pills, or anxiety/anti-depression medicine can be deadly.
Drinking can impair a person’s judgment, coordination, and reaction time.
This increases the risk of falls, household accidents, and car crashes. Alcohol and aging can be a deadly mix because older adults may have other factors already putting them at risk for such accidents.
The Extra Problem of Memory Issues
Our title refers to a story we’ve heard time and time again. This person may have been a lifelong alcoholic, even one who has been sober for some time. However, memory problems crop up in later life, whether due to alcohol’s damaging effects or other causes. Now, the sober person begins drinking again. Or, even more commonly, a “social drinker” starts to deteriorate and drink more. At the same time, they have cognitive issues. Thus, they have poor safety awareness and may forget how much (or even if) they’re drinking.
We’ve talked to many family members and professionals who explain that Mom always had a glass of wine or cocktail in the evening. As she lives alone and becomes more forgetful, that turns into a few glasses. Combined with sometimes forgetting to eat (or general poor nutrition), medications, and all the other factors mentioned, we now have a serious problem.
Memory issues may also make tackling the problem a real challenge. If Mom can’t remember she’s had a drink or that it is a problem, it may be tough to get her to stop. Those concerned often try to take alcohol away/limit access. Unfortunately, this often fails. The elder can usually find ways to get alcohol. Years ago, we came across elders who enlisted all kinds of helpers when they couldn’t drive to easily get alcohol. It wasn’t uncommon to find that they took taxis or even hired someone to go get the alcohol for them. Of course, there are even easier and more convenient options now.
Also, it is important to have a handle on the person’s medical situation and scope of the issue. They may suffer serious withdrawal symptoms, which can be especially dangerous in an elder with health problems.
Alcohol and Aging: How to Get Help
If you’re concerned that someone you care for may have an issue with alcohol, talk to someone about it. With the issues mentioned above with alcohol and aging, your worries could mean a crisis is on the horizon. That is, if one or more haven’t already occurred. You can contact us anytime at 727-447-5845 or 813-333-5020 for a confidential consultation.
Depending on the situation, a typical first step would be an assessment by one of our care managers. This offers a clearer picture of the problem and related issues, as well as an informed approach. We can connect you with numerous resources, identifying which ones make sense given the situation.
What EasyLiving can do to help:
- Professional assessment and recommended plan of action and resources
- Care coordination for treatment and ongoing needs–bringing the care team together to tackle this complex issue with a multipronged approach
- Care technology: telehealth monitoring, proactive assessments, condition-specific evidence-based programs, family room portal
In-home care and supervision:
- Companionship and oversight in the home
- Assistance with personal care
- Meal preparation for improved nutrition
- Medication assistance
- Falls prevention
- Help with errands, appointment reminders, transportation
- Household upkeep and light housekeeping
- Memory care
- Respite care to support caregivers
Resources on Alcohol and Aging
National Institute on Aging: Facts about Aging and Alcohol
Aging.com: Alcohol Abuse Amongst the Elderly
Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery