Drunk & Retired: 7 Signs of Alcoholism in Seniors
From drinking more to celebrate not having to work, to drinking to relieve the boredom of having so much free time, many seniors misuse alcohol and develop alcohol use disorders in retirement. Alcoholism in seniors is prevalent in the United States, partly due to a culture that encourages drinking, and partly because seniors are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than younger people. The same cocktail they barely felt in their 30s may make them stumble and slur in their 70s. As a result, a person whose drinking habits have stayed the same, may suddenly develop a problem. If you are concerned about the drinking habits of a senior that you love, read on to learn more about alcoholism in seniors and the signs of alcoholism in older adults, such as confusion, frequent falls, and changes in eating habits.
Retirees & Elderly Alcoholism Statistics
Over 2.5 million Americans suffered from elderly alcoholism in 2012. Experts estimate that this number will reach 5 million by 2020. Both binge drinking and alcoholism in seniors have increased considerably over the past decade, and while men show higher rates of binge drinking and alcohol use disorders, women also show significant increases in drinking problems as they get older. Between 2 and 5% of senior citizens drink excessively, and while this percentage is smaller than rates found with younger adults, the physical and mental health consequences for elderly alcoholism are far more serious. Even drinking behaviors that do not qualify as alcohol use disorder by the DSM-IV standards can have a devastating impact on the physical and emotional wellbeing of seniors.
As you get older, your central nervous system gets more sensitive to drugs and alcohol, the liver enzymes required to metabolize these substances become less efficient, and changes in body composition increase the concentration of drugs and alcohol in your system. This means that an older adult will get drunker faster on less alcohol, and will stay drunk much longer. It also means that the negative health effects of alcohol are greatly amplified. A study comparing the impact of alcohol on moderate senior drinkers versus moderate senior drinkers who also engaged in periodic binge or heavy drinking found that the heavier drinkers were over two times more likely to die within the next 20 years.
Alcoholism in seniors puts individuals at a much higher risk of cancer, sleep problems, diabetes, cognitive changes, pain, depression, liver disease, memory problems, falls and injuries, mood disorders, and dangerous drug interactions. It is important to remember, too, that what qualifies as heavy drinking for young people (five or more drinks in one sitting for men, four or more for women) may be enough to fully incapacitate an older person. For them, heavy drinking could be as few as two or three drinks.
Signs of Alcoholism in Seniors
The epidemic of alcoholism in seniors goes widely unnoticed, as many people are likely to dismiss problem drinking in older people. Sometimes you may fail to recognize alcoholism for what it is, and think your loved one is having a “senior moment” when they get confused or have mood swings. Even if you do recognize that the problem stems from alcohol, you may figure, what harm can drinking really do at this point? Or why say anything when it’s too late for them to change? But the truth is, elderly alcoholism can do a great deal of harm, and it is never too late to change.
Here are some of the signs of alcoholism in seniors:
1. Confusion and memory loss
Excessive drinking can cause cognitive problems at any age, but the slower rate of metabolism found in older drinkers means that elderly alcoholism quite easily results in a level of confusion and memory loss that resembles dementia. Some people have placed their loved ones in assisted living memory care, only to find out that after a few months of no alcohol, regular meals and medication, and general good care, all the symptoms of supposed dementia go away. Unfortunately, the longer elderly alcoholism goes untreated, the more likely these cognitive impairments are to become permanent. The earlier your loved ones receives treatment, the better equipped their brain will be to recover.
2. Dangerous drinking habits
Drinking habits can be a big clue for identifying alcoholism in seniors. If your loved one frequently drinks alone, secretly drinks, and lies about drinking, they most likely have an alcohol use disorder. You should also be concerned if they regularly drink two or more drinks a day, or quickly gulp down alcoholic drinks.
3. Reduced interest in hobbies or social activities
The more serious alcoholism in seniors becomes, the less interest those seniors will have in the hobbies, activities, and social interactions they once valued. Your loved one may start to withdraw from friends and family and become isolated, and they may avoid events or activities that don’t involve drinking, or where drinking would be unacceptable.
4. Drinking to calm down, unwind, or forget about problems
Regularly drinking to relax, get rid of stress, or escape from negative emotions and conflicts is a sure sign of an alcohol problem. Relying on alcohol like this is not just unhealthy, it will cause your loved one to gradually lose their ability to cope with life’s ups and downs without alcohol.
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5. Frequent unexplained falls, pain, sickness, or general health complaints
Older people who drink excessively tend to have more falls than seniors who don’t drink, and they experience more frequent pain and sickness. These varied health problems can be a result of alcohol intoxication, alcohol withdrawal, or the progression of physical illnesses that can be caused or worsened by drinking.
6. Changes in grooming, sleeping, or eating habits
Elderly alcoholism often leads to changes in habits and daily routine. Your loved one may experience insomnia, or start sleeping more during the day. They may start eating less or becoming very picky about food. They also may start to neglect their appearance by wearing stained clothes, staying in night clothes all day, or by not bathing or washing their hair as often as they should.
7. Risky or uncharacteristic behavior
Other signs of alcoholism in seniors includes acting in risky or uncharacteristic ways. They may try to drive while intoxicated, or drink with medications that warn against combining with alcohol. They may become depressed, anxious, irritable, or hostile. You may feel like they are only the person you know and love part-time, and the rest of the time they are replaced by a stranger. Mood disorders and uncontrolled behavior are common in alcoholism, especially for older adults who can’t physically process alcohol as well as they once could.
Why are Retired People Susceptible to Alcohol Abuse?
There are many reasons for alcoholism in seniors, such as:
- Loneliness after children have left the nest, after friends pass away, or after the loss of a spouse due to death or divorce
- Feeling the need to celebrate now that they are retired and don’t have to go to work every day
- Drinking to relieve boredom, because they have more free time than they know what to do with
- Drinking to self-medicate pain, depression, insomnia, loss of mobility, or other physical and mental health issues that may develop in later life
How to Discuss an Alcohol Problem with Your Loved One
It can seem difficult to speak to an older loved one about their drinking. If you are a child talking to a parent, you may have a hard time accepting the role reversal. You may also worry about insulting an older person’s dignity by bringing up something that your loved one may feel ashamed of. Speaking to an addiction treatment specialist, social worker, religious leader, or professional interventionist about the problem may be the best way to develop a plan of action.
When you meet with this professional, come prepared with the following information:
- A brief history of your loved one’s life, including religious, cultural, and personal experiences and preferences
- A list of your loved one’s health care providers
- A list of medications your loved one is taking, both prescription and over-the-counter
- An idea of the state your loved one is in. How is their drinking impacting their relationships, activities, and mental and physical health?
- A list of friends and family members who would be willing to help if you decide to hold an intervention
You will go over this information with the professional, and discuss the situation to determine the best options for helping your loved one get addiction treatment. You may decide that a one on one talk with your loved one’s preacher or doctor would be most effective. You may feel like your loved one will take action if you speak up, or you may feel like they will only take the conversation seriously if it comes from a peer. You may decide that a group intervention is the best approach.
No matter how you decide to confront your loved one about elderly alcoholism, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Try to have the conversation when your loved one is least likely to be intoxicated.
- Avoid shaming words like “addict” or “alcoholic.” You want to show that you understand your loved one has a bad problem, but they, themselves, aren’t bad.
- Speak gently, and warmly, showing that you are only speaking out of concern.
- Bring up specific examples of negative consequences related to your loved one’s drinking without hostility or blame. Instead of saying, “you’re drunk all the time,” use “I” language to say, “I’m worried, because I’ve noticed that you go through four bottles of wine every week, and your doctor says alcohol will make your heart problem worse.”
- Carefully consider what matters to your loved one the most. They may not care that their house is a mess and the neighbors are gossiping about the time they parked on their lawn instead of the driveway, but they may care very much that you don’t feel safe letting them spend time alone with their grandchildren.
- Recognize that you may have to speak to them more than once about this. Be patient, and calmly bring it up a little at a time, or in different ways.
- Rehearse in advance, practicing what you could say in response to your loved one’s reactions to your concerns:
- If they tell you their doctor approves of their drinking, ask them if the doctor knows how much alcohol they actually consume.
- If they say they are just drinking right now because they’re sad about (the kids moving out, losing a spouse, needing a walker) and it’ll get better, explain to them that alcohol is a depressant, and the longer they continue to drink, the more negative emotions they’ll experience.
- If they say it doesn’t matter what happens to them, make it clear that it matters very much to you, and that you want them to stay around for as long as possible.
- If they say they’ll be bored if they stop drinking, remind them of the things they used to enjoy, or suggest some new activities they could try.
- If they are worried that addiction treatment is another way of saying nursing home, explain that they can recover in an all-ages treatment facility that is more like a campus than a hospital.
Finding Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
It is never too late to treat alcoholism in seniors. Getting your loved one into treatment as soon as possible will allow them to increase their health and happiness, and live much longer than they will if they continue drinking.