Magazine article Work & Family Life

Elder Substance Abuse May Be Hidden

Magazine article Work & Family Life

Elder Substance Abuse May Be Hidden

Article excerpt

Uncle George always liked his liquor, so his family didn't notice that he was drinking more as he got older. Grandma Betty started to drink after her husband died-to help her sleep, she said-and now she needs a couple of drinks to get through the day.

These are common stories, according to the National Institute on Aging. More than three million older Americans have a drinking problem, and many of them began to abuse alcohol for the first time after the age of 65.

Alcohol and aging

Alcoholism is more hidden among older people for reasons that become clearer as we learn more about the aging process. To begin with, alcohol becomes more potent as the body ages and the ill effects of drinking are multiplied by drugs commonly prescribed for older people.

Poor health, depression, the loss of a loved one and feelings of isolation may also lead to a greater dependence on alcohol. And older drinkers are less likely to be constrained by the prospect of losing a job or a drunk-driving arrest. To make matters worse, many older people resist seeking help-they were brought up to "not talk about our problems."

Diagnosis can be difficult

Alcohol abuse among older people is not easy to diagnose because many symptoms are similar to those associated with aging: tiredness, loss of appetite, forgetfulness, losing things, frequent falls, depression, dementia and incontinence. And adult children who did not see a drinking problem when they were growing up may be less likely to recognize one now.

For some older people isolation is a symptom, and for others it's the reverse. Drinking cocktails with friends is an encouraged form of socializing in many retirement communities.

But even after a problem is acknowledged, many families don't want to confront it. Some have the attitude: "At Dad's age, what's the harm? Just let him drink." Or if drinking has been a life-long problem, family members may feel there's nothing anyone can do to change the situation now.

This is not to say that everyone who drinks regularly has a problem or that all problem-drinkers drink every day. And there's a difference between having a glass of wine at dinner and several drinks. Look out for these specific behaviors:

* Drinking to calm one's nerves, forget worries or reduce depression.

* Gulping down drinks or frequently having more than a drink a day.

* Lying about or trying to hide one's drinking habits.

* Getting hurt or hurting someone else while drinking.

* Acting irritable, resentful or unreasonable when not drinking.

Treatment programs work

After years of heavy drinking, an older woman agreed to enter an outpatient treatment program only to please her children. …

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