Spotting the Signs of Alcohol Abuse in the ElderlyWritten by freelance contributor Anne Rickards
Alcoholism is a pressing problem in the U.S., affecting 16.6. million people above the age of 18. Nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol related causes every year, making alcoholism the third leading preventable cause of death in the nation. Substance and alcohol abused are often discussed as an issue affecting the youth, but research shows that elderly adults are a particularly vulnerable population. A national survey in 2008 showed that around 40 per cent of adults aged 65 or over drink alcohol. Excessive drinking can be specially dangerous for those who have existing health problems and those who take specific medications. If there are elderly members in your family, it is important to be aware that the signs of alcohol abuse can be erroneously attributed to age, since symptoms (e.g. memory loss) can overlap. Heavy drinking can exacerbate serious medical conditions such as heart failure, osteoporosis and diabetes, so it is important to be on the lookout for signs of alcoholism, and to take a gentle, caring approach to the issues. Common symptoms of alcohol abuse in the elderly include:
- Drinking over three drinks a day or seven drinks a week.
- Cognitive decline: Your family members may have difficulty remembering events, processing information, or understanding conversations.
- They may ignore their grooming.
- They may complain of stomach pain or other gastrointestinal problems.
- They may withdraw from family members.
- They may miss medical appointments, or forget to take medication.
- Abuse of prescription drugs: They may take higher doses than prescribed, because they forget that they have already taken their medication.
- They may suffer from repeated accidents, injuries or falls. They may have unexplained burns or bruises.
- They may hide their drinking or, on the contrary, seek out social events where drinking is involved.
- They may lose interest in hobbies, sport and activities they used to enjoy regularly.
- They can complain of insomnia, loss of appetite or chronic health issues that do not seem to have a physical cause.
- They may find it more difficult than usual to complete daily chores or stick to routines.
- They may seem depressed or angry.
- They may be afraid or suffer delusions.
- They may have slurred speech or act slightly tipsy.
Getting Help for an Elderly Person:
If you suspect an elderly loved on is drinking excessively, speak to a professional (a doctor, counsellor or psychologist) who specializes in treating older adults. List down all the medications the person is taking, the doctors they are seeing, and any information that may be helpful. It is important to be gentle when broaching the subject for the first time with your loved one, so a specialist can help you decide on the strategy to take. The person’s GP may the ideal person to discuss the problem, since many older people trust their doctors wholeheartedly. A good friend might also be able to help in suggesting suitable treatment. Useful tips include:
- Don’t talk to the person when they are under the effects of alcohol.
- Be loving, recalling good times and not focusing on the bad.
- Avoid words like ‘alcoholism’ or ‘addiction’, since these can make your loved one feel stigmatized.
- The person may not be ready to have ‘the discussion’ in one sitting. Many smaller talks may work better than one if they are not immediately receptive.
- Be specific – for instance, say, “I notice you drink three cocktails before going to bed.” Avoid accusative language, such as “You are always drunk.” Use ‘I’ frequently and ‘You’ as little as possible.
- Let them know of the effects that alcohol can have on their health – e.g. effects on memory, interaction with other medications, etc.
- Refer them to an excellent, caring specialist who you know will treat them with love and care. If inpatient treatment is necessary, let your loved one know that you will take care of issues like their houseplants, pets, etc.
- If your loved one is not ready for help, stay in touch and consider letting their doctor know about the condition.
National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Facts and Statistics, accessed December, 2015.
Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Alcoholism in the Elderly Population, accessed December, 2015.
Hazelden.org, How to Talk to an Older Person Who Has a Problem with Alcohol or Medications, accessed December, 2015
H. O’Connell et al, Alcohol use disorders in elderly people—redefining an age old problem in old age. BMJ. 200, 327(7416): 664-67.