Watching for Alcohol Withdrawal in Elders

  • My post last month, "Is It Dementia or Delirium?" has kept nagging at me, and I've finally figured out why. There's something else that needs to be considered, when evaluating an elder who is confused or even delirious while in the hospital. We need to consider alcohol.


    The first elder who I officially cared for was my next-door neighbor, Joe. Joe was totally deaf from Ménière's disease. He was in his 80s and alcohol had been a large part of his life since Prohibition, when he'd carry a hip flask of moonshine. It wasn't news to me that Joe was alcoholic. When I became his default caregiver, he was in his mid-eighties, and had no desire to change. It was a part of who he was, and we both knew it. We also both knew that, in some way, alcohol would likely have a part in what killed him.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    Joe fell often, and much of it was after a number of drinks. One evening he was barbecuing in his garage. I looked out my kitchen window and saw him lying on the ground. I ran out to help, and found that he was injured, so I had to call an ambulance. They found, at the hospital, that he'd dislocated his shoulder. They had to give him Valium and some other drugs so they could manipulate the shoulder back into the socket. That done, they were going to send him home, where he would be alone. I had children who also needed me, so I couldn't stay with him. I told them that.


    Joe, who had a body full of alcohol and drugs and thought I was his long dead wife, but they wanted to send him home. He was confused, frightened, delirious. But they wanted to send him home. When I pleaded with the hospital staff to have him stay overnight, they said they weren't sure that Medicare would pay for his overnight stay, so they were going to send him home.


    I knew this was crazy. I also knew Joe's family wouldn't go broke if they had to pay for a night in the hospital, so I called his son in New Jersey and told him what I thought. He backed me up, I told the hospital to keep Joe. I told them that if Medicare didn't pay, the family would. Never, in this circus, did anyone question the fact that Joe smelled like a bottle of vodka. That he wasn't just full of the Valium and other drugs they had administered - he was also full of alcohol, as well.


    A year later, one of Joe's falls resulted in a broken hip. He, of course, had been drinking, because he'd always "been drinking." That's what he did! We rode the ambulance together again, but this time I had to leave him. They needed to do surgery.


    I went to the hospital to see him the next day, and he was in mental and physical agony. He told me about his "dreams." He was frightened and shaking. I knew much of this was likely caused by alcohol withdrawal. The doctors brushed me off. Was his alcoholism such a "crime" that they couldn't have sympathy?


    Joe spent a terrible week in the hospital, with no treatment aimed at his withdrawal. After a week, he was to be discharge, and I was able to get him into a nearby nursing home. He was still suffering from withdrawal. He had frightening dreams, and wandered in and out of reality. You don't get over a lifetime of alcohol dependence in a week.


    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    I asked the nurse at the home if I could bring Joe some vodka and orange juice. They told me his doctor wouldn't let him have alcohol, because he is an alcoholic. "No kidding!" I thought. "Now, tell me something I don't know."


    So what is the doctor going to do with this guy? The answer was, after much begging on my part, he would "prescribed" one drink a day, to be measured out by the nurse. To a guy who used to put some orange juice in his vodka, a measured ounce of vodka in his orange juice would go unnoticed. Joe would get no significant relief, yet it was the best that I could do for him.


    Joe was dead in six weeks. The trauma of the hip fracture was the likely cause. But Joe could have been treated much more humanely than he was. I like to think things have improved, as that was a decade ago. But sometimes I wonder. How many medical people even consider that a number of these elderly people they treat have alcohol problems? I know that Joe wasn't alone in this.


    "Alcoholism in the Elderly," by Sally K Rigler (American Family Physician, March 15, 2000), begins, "Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are common but under-recognized problems among older adults."


    Later, the paper states, "Although only about 5 percent of alcoholics develop delirium or seizures during withdrawal, older persons with comorbid medical conditions and decreased physiologic reserve should be closely supervised while undergoing detoxification."


    Are doctors recognizing the widow, who has resorted to alcohol to soothe the pain of losing her husband, as a possible alcoholic? Do they recognize guys like Joe, who spent a lifetime depending on alcohol? Are they considering how to humanely treat these elders who come in through ER, and are abruptly taken off the alcohol, which is, of course, a drug.


    I hope so, because there are more elders suffering from alcoholism than we like to think. If their condition is not recognized when they are hospitalized or placed in a nursing home, we are sentencing them to misery that is totally avoidable. There are drugs to treat this condition. Whether it goes as far as delirium, or manifests to a lesser degree, there is no need for them to suffer from withdrawal.


    Medical people need to be watchful for elders who have alcohol problems. If it is too late to treat the disease, at least they can treat the symptoms.


    To learn more about Carol, please go to or

Published On: August 07, 2007