Alcohol abuse affects millions of Americans, yet it continues to be underrecognized in elder patients. About one-third of these elders develop alcohol problems later in life, while the other two-thirds grow older with an existing dependency. When you add up all of the factors that affect us as we grow older – sickness, loss of loved ones, retirement, declining health, less money, fewer friends, more time – we can easily see how an alcohol dependency can emerge. Yet alcoholism is dangerous at any age, and it has a unique component for the elderly since many are taking medications to manage certain illnesses.
Case Study 1: Growing Older with a Dependency
Meet Ed, a proud father and grandfather in his early 70s. Ed has always led an abundant life that included steady jobs, a moderate home and his loving family. In his teens, Ed was known as a wild child, and he enjoyed his drinking and nights out with the guys. Unlike some of his friends, Ed never experimented with drugs, so he was able to keep his head on straight and do well in his careers. He married in his 20s and had three children.
Through his middle ages, Ed continued working and raising his family, but he never let go of his drinking. Although Ed didn’t have an alcohol addiction per se, he needed his drinks at the end of the day. This was socially acceptable, so no one questioned his habit. In fact, that’s basically all it was, a habit. Ed’s wife would scoff, “Oh Ed, you and your beers.” His friends would comment, “You can really put them down, man!”
As Ed got older and his children moved out of the home, his wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She required extra care, leaving Ed to tend to many of the day-to-day tasks. Ed took an early retirement to care for his wife, but really all it did was give him extra time on his hands. He started laying around, socializing less with friends and spending more time in front of the TV.
Ed starts drinking more. There’s no need to wait until after work, so he starts whipping up cocktails during the day. By night, the alcohol helps him sleep better, or so he thinks, so he ends up drinking until he falls asleep. Then, in his mid-60s, Ed is diagnosed with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. He knows he hasn’t been taking care of himself, and his poor health adds to his pressures. He begins mixing his alcohol with his medications.
For Ed, his drinking problem has always been there. Yet with his declining health and early retirement, it has facilitated an alcohol dependency in his later years. Ed’s problem may be more difficult to detect because of his age and health problems, leaving him to suffer in silence.
Case Study 2: An Emerging Dependency
Now, imagine that Ed had the same life but without the underlying drinking. Maybe he came home and enjoyed a tall glass of iced tea instead. Maybe he spent his weekends outdoors instead of at social gatherings. Yet when Ed is faced with his wife’s diagnosis, his own deteriorating health and extra time from not having a job, he begins to experiment with drinking. A friend jokingly suggests, “You should really have a drink or two, Ed!” And, this is exactly what he does.
With no job to be accountable for, children out of the house and his wife limited by her own disease, Ed starts taking up drinking in his later age. It seems to calm his nerves, help him sleep and pass the time. No one suspects it, but the problem is still very real.
Why Elders Need Our Support
Even though alcoholism rates in the elderly are far less than in any other age group, it’s still something that we should not overlook. There are many elders that have to give up drinking because of medications or complications from old age, but this isn’t the case for everyone. The added obstacle is that confronting and treating an alcohol addiction in the later years seems almost unheard of. Most of us want our elders to be happy, and if that means letting them have their drinks, we often don’t intervene.
Still, it’s important that we play our caregiving roles in the lives of our parents and grandparents. An elder in their 70s who clearly has an alcohol dependency may go on to live a longer, healthier life with a bit of our help. If we stand back and let the dependency take place, our loved one could instead have a premature death, negative drug interactions or a decreased sense of self-worth and well being.