Alcoholism Among Older Adults: A Growing but Overlooked Problem

Alcoholism Among Older Adults A Growing but Overlooked ProblemAddiction is generally considered to be a problem that impacts younger people more than any other population demographic. We may be aware that it’s an “equal opportunity” issue, impacting the young, old, rich and poor alike, but when asked to picture an addict we inherently jump to the youthful heroin abuser before we think of the older woman downing a bottle of wine. However, substance abuse among seniors is on the rise, and the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence considers addiction among those 60 and over to be one of the fastest-growing health problems in the country. The main substances of concern are alcohol and prescription medicines, but the core problem actually lies in how society treats the issue.

Drinking in Seniors Across America

The Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality expects that the number of people in the U.S. who are 50 and over and in need of substance abuse treatment will double by 2020, to a total of 5.7 million. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of seniors in need of treatment increased by 50 percent, indicating that it’s not only a long-term trend, but one that seems to be getting worse. The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence sums it up succinctly, “the situation remains underestimated, under-identified, under-diagnosed, and under-treated.”

Given Florida’s role as a “retirement state,” it has the highest proportion of citizens 65 or over, and is being hit particularly hard by the growing problem. Statistics show that 187,000 seniors in Florida report being chronic drinkers, and the state ranks dead last nationwide for the rate of multiple, ongoing conditions in the older population. On top of all this, the state’s senior population is expected to grow by 88 percent – almost doubling – from 2015 to 2030.

Why Are Seniors Especially Affected?

The reasons people become dependent on alcohol or other substances don’t change with age.  People drink as a coping strategy for things like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, grief and, most crucially, loneliness. Many seniors move to Florida to retire while their families stay at home. Getting older also means losing people close to you more frequently, and potentially battling your own health problems too. This combination of factors is understandably unpleasant, and may lead to a sense of foreboding, anxiety and loneliness.

In many cases, seniors still maintain a social life, and are much less likely to succumb to loneliness. However, in places like Highland County, Florida – which doesn’t have a public transport system and where large numbers of seniors live in private residences – loneliness can easily become a factor. If physical issues make driving impossible, the problem is considerably more likely and this can lead to substance abuse.

When a senior does drink, his body can’t cope with the alcohol as well as it used to either. Alcohol metabolism slows with age, leading to higher concentrations in the blood and making the individual more inebriated than he would have been ten years before or when he was 30. As a result, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that seniors drink no more than one or two drinks – for women and men, respectively – in any single sitting. They suggest no more than seven drinks per week, with a maximum of three in one day.

An Under-Reported Issue

The problem is compounded by the fact that senior substance abuse isn’t caught frequently enough. There are many causes for this, such as health providers mistaking the symptoms for something like dementia, difficulties attending treatment and unwillingness to admit – to doctors or themselves – that there is a problem. Adult children of seniors also often overlook the issue due to shamed or an inability to accept it and instead make excuses for excessive drinking and medication use, or just ignore it.

When senior alcoholism does come to the attention of a doctor, it is often because of the consequences of alcohol abuse (like more falls, changes in appetite and confusion) rather than the addiction itself. This means that the physician might not recognize the underlying cause, and seniors aren’t particularly willing to volunteer the information either. While under-reporting isn’t the cause, it does prevent implementing treatment, and it’s one of the most important issues when it comes to senior substance abuse.

The Importance of Finding Help

We all need to make a concerted effort to recognize and address substance abuse problems we see developing in our older adult relatives. There is no cause for shame, but it’s important that we learn to recognize our own denial. Remember that prescription drug and alcohol abuse is a growing and serious problem in seniors, and if we notice a “red flag,” we can’t just brush it aside with a weak excuse. It’s something to address head on, helping seniors realize that the help is available and that people do care.