Alcohol abuse can occur at any age, but in the past most doctors looked for the signs in younger people. There’s also a bias in society at large, including some doctors, that people who abuse alcohol will be of a certain type. It can be hard for a doctor to look at a sweet, grandmotherly woman and think that perhaps the "occasional" glass of wine she admits to drinking may actually be a good portion of a bottle on nightly basis. But things are changing. Now, the NIH Senior Health site is promoting awareness of alcohol abuse among the senior population.
Most seniors, like the rest of the population, don’t abuse alcohol. They’ve gone through their adult lives with an occasional social drink or a glass of wine with dinner. However, life events can cause a senior extra stress that for some may lead to self-medicating through alcohol.
1. Retirement: While retirement used to be more of an issue for males, now many women, as well, are retiring from meaningful jobs in the workforce. Retiring from an outside job may mean the loss of a good source of social interaction. Retirement can also leave a person with an identity crisis. Again, traditionally, it’s been males who were more likely to consider their jobs a major part of their identity. However, women can have similar feelings. Our society places significant emphasis on what a person does - sadly often more so than who a person is. Once the job disappears, a retired person may feel lost. Those feelings can lead to depression which in turn may lead to self-medicating with alcohol.
2. Loss of a spouse: For many, the loss of a spouse represents the loss of a soul mate. While not all long-term marriages are that wonderful, most do offer at least some companionship. The loneliness that follows the death of a spouse can seem impossible to overcome. Going out with friends is encouraged, but if those friends are still married, this socializing can cause more pain, so it becomes difficult to escape the cycle. Then, the one glass of comforting wine, beer or mixed drink slowly escalates until heavy drinking obliterates the pain of loss rather than allowing the person to heal in a healthy manner.
3. Diagnosis of a major illness: Logically, a diagnosis of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s or another major disease would drive people into a super health conscious mindset. However, that isn’t always the case. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the diagnosis of an illness is cited by the NIH as one reason that seniors may turn to alcohol use and eventual abuse. Naturally, there are people who have abused alcohol most of their adult lives and these life events simply increase the level of use. However, for others, major life events can flip the switch from being an occasional social drinker to an alcohol abuser.
The NIH Senior Health site offers suggestions for people who need to stop drinking but cannot do so themselves. They range from counseling to medications to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Friends and family connected to the affected person may benefit from attending Al-Anon meetings to learn how to approach their loved one about his or her problem as well as how to help themselves cope with the issues that arise.
National Institutes on Health. Senior Health. Retrieved from http://nihseniorhealth.gov/alcoholuse/alcoholandaging/01.html
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.