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Alcohol Abuse and the Elderly: A silent epidemic

Alcohol Abuse and the Elderly: A silent epidemic

Seniors are told that they should limit their alcohol consumption to no more than seven beverages a week—but as many as 5.7 million older adults participate in at-risk drinking behaviors. According to a 2018 survey, one in 10 seniors admit to binge drinking—four or more drinks in a two-hour span. Even seasoned healthcare professionals are often surprised by the prevalence of alcohol abuse among seniors.

Alcohol abuse poses risks for people of any age, but for older adults, the potential perils can be extremely high. Alcoholism can lead to numerous illnesses, including dementia.  Injuries, drug interactions, automobile accidents and dehydration can cause greater harm to seniors than those abusing alcohol at a younger age. 

Detection and open, honest communication are vital in keeping our community’s seniors safe from alcohol abuse.

Detecting Alcohol Abuse in Seniors:

Detecting alcohol abuse in seniors can be difficult. Often, it can present itself with other aging-related challenges, such as falling frequently, confusion, memory issues, and even depression leading to misdiagnosis.  Seniors are also less likely to disclose a history of excessive alcohol intake to their medical providers, which can lead to underdetection.

Many signs of alcohol abuse in seniors are similar to those we see in a younger population:

  • short-term memory loss
  • irritability or severe mood swings
  • bloodshot eyes
  • sudden fluctuations in weight
  • becoming isolated from family and friends
  • a change to lethargic behavior, which also may signal depression
  • bruises from falls or smaller injuries due to loss of coordination 

Risks of Alcohol Abuse in Seniors:

While the issue may be difficult to detect, elder alcohol abuse is both prevalent and dangerous.  A 2015 study by the NCADD (National Council on Alcohol & Drug Dependence) reports that up to 11 percent of elderly hospital admissions and 14 percent of emergency room admissions are due to drug and alcohol related issues. 

Substance abuse is associated with a number of potential health issues, which can be exacerbated by the aging process. Because seniors have less muscle and a slower metabolism, alcohol can remain in the body longer, causing potential organ damage and preventing prescription medications from working properly. Substance abuse is also linked to several types of dementia. Over time, heavy drinking can lead to brain damage, as well as diabetes, abnormalities of the liver and pancreas, osteoporosis, immune disorders, nutritional challenges, high blood pressure, heart failure and stroke, and even some types of cancers. 

Talking with Seniors about Alcohol

Talking about alcoholism with seniors can be particularly challenging.  Alcoholism carries a stronger stigma among older generations, and terms such as “addiction” can put seniors on the defensive. Additionally, perceived ageism can be a challenge when elders are speaking with younger people. 

To show respect, ask questions that encourage self-reflection. For example, you can discuss goals for their independence, mobility, finances, and relationships, and then guide the conversation to a discussion of how their alcohol use impacts their progress towards those goals. Doing this will help them see the gap between where they are now and where they want to be.

Most importantly, express empathy and support self-efficacy. Encourage the seniors in your life to take responsibility for their change and empower them to find their own solutions.

For those who seek professional treatment, there is reason for hope. Studies have shown that seniors often have more favorable outcomes after alcohol addiction therapy and treatment than younger people. 

Your local Oasis Senior Advisor wants to be your trusted partner as you serve senior clients and customers. Oasis has a wide network of referral partners to assist you and the seniors you serve. To learn more about partnering with Oasis to build your business and better assist your older clients, call (888) 455-5838.