Alcoholism among Older Adults a Hidden Epidemic

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Alcoholism among Older Adults a Hidden Epidemic


Byline: Jane Oppermann

It's a hidden problem; an invisible epidemic among older adults. Out of the work force, safely tucked away in their own homes, and with diminished contact with friends, family or the community, older adults can take a drink or two, - hey, why not another one or two - until they fall into a sweet, woozy sleep ... or maybe just pass out.

No one knows and, often, no one cares.

No one likes to talk about it, either. The image of alcohol abuse isn't a pretty one. We picture a skid row bum, not a lovely church-going widow sipping one glass of wine after another in the quiet of her family room, or a fun-loving, older couple toasting to their health with one cocktail, then two or three before stumbling off to bed.

But, in fact, that skid row bum is not likely to be among the more than 2.5 million older adult alcoholics in the United States. That person is already dead. That is, after all, what happens to people who abuse alcohol ... their lives are shortened.

Estimating that as much as 10 percent of the population age 60 and older has a problem with alcohol, researchers break this group into three types:

- People who began using alcohol at an early age, establishing a life-long history of drinking and probably a host of medical and relational problems.

- People who began drinking late in life, perhaps to numb the pain of losing a spouse or career.

- People within retirement communities who use the daily "happy hour" to consume enough drinks to boost confidence and ease them into social situations or to relieve the loneliness of being a single within a "couples" world.

"This is an issue, a big issue within retirement homes. Social drinking is often a part of daily life there, setting individuals up for addictions. In fact, we act as consultants with several retirement facilities," said Erin Houlihan, a social worker and prevention coordinator in the Senior Services Department of Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village.

There are a host of factors contributing to this epidemic, according to Houlihan.

Retirement and perhaps having too much free time, the normal aging of our bodies, surviving the loss of spouse and friends, nutritional deficiencies, poor health, drug interactions and a sense of hopelessness as we confront old age all set us up to be good candidates for this disease.

As we age, our bodies do not process alcohol as well as when we were younger. We lose lean body mass, gain fat and the body's water content decreases. Alcohol is metabolized at a slower rate, resulting in a higher blood alcohol level and quicker intoxication for older adults.

Since the body can't rid itself of alcohol as quickly, its effects are prolonged. So even moderate drinkers who do not alter their drinking patterns as they get older can experience alcohol-related problems in later years.

And while it might take a younger person 10 to 15 years to develop the disease of alcoholism, it might take only a few months or a year or two for an older person to become afflicted.

Older women are at greater risk because of their physical makeup. …

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