Alcohol Use in the Elderly

Alcohol causes more problems as people age

Alcohol use in the persons 65 and over is notable for several reasons.  First, the older person has a diminished capacity to handle alcohol and what he/she was able to handle  when they were younger no longer applies. Secondly, because older people often have multiple medical conditions for which they are being treated, it can be dangerous to mix alcohol and medications. For instance, aspirin use with alcohol can cause excessive bleeding; acetaminophen and alcohol can cause risk of liver damage.  Allergy medication and alcohol can cause sleepiness, making it risky for older people to drive. Thirdly, as people age, they are subject to losses, changes in life arrangements, medical conditions and surgeries which create stress.  Alcohol and depression are relational, meaning that alcohol can contribute to a person’s inability to handle the situation and deepen the depression.

There are two kinds of alcohol abuse described in the Age Page reports by the National Institute on Aging.  People who have been heavy drinkers all of their lives suddenly find that they don’t get the same punch anymore from that drink they have always had.  Then there are the people who have suffered a loss and begin to take a drink to help them sleep.  Later they have another one to help them get through the morning.  Then they have another to get through the afternoon. When they begin to hide it from their families or caregivers, they have
a problem.  If they drink more than three drinks in one day, they have a problem. If they lie about drinking habits or lose interest in food, they have a problem.  If they drink alone, they have a problem.

Alcohol can impair judgment, coordination and reaction time in an adult who already is already suffering from diminished motor and muscular abilities, diminished senses and vision problems.  There is increased risk when an older person is drinking for car crashes, accidents in the home, falls and fractures of bones which don’t heel as quickly as they did before.  Heavy drinking contributes to liver cirrhosis, immune system disorders and brain damage.  Alcohol can make it difficult for doctors to determine what exactly is happening to their patient because alcohol can cause changes in heart and blood vessels.  Sometimes, it will even dull the pain of a heart attack.  People become more forgetful and confused when they have been drinking and cannot report accurately what is happening.  Alcohol affects the blood sugar levels of people with diabetes.  The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that people over age 65 who choose to drink have no more than one drink a day.  Drinking at this level is not associated with health risks.

Alcohol Warning Signs

What are the warning signs that you may have a problem with alcohol?  Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you drink to calm your nerves or solve life’s problems?
  2. Do you lose interest in food?
  3. Do you drink your drinks too quickly?
  4. Do you have more than 3 drinks a day?
  5. Lie about or try to hide how much you have been drinking?
  6. Drink alone?
  7. Have accidents while drinking?
  8. Were drunk 3 or 4 times in the past year?
  9. Need alcohol to get high?
  10. Feel irritable, resentful or uncomfortable when not drinking?
  11. Have life problems caused by your drinking?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to several of these questions, you may want to contact Alcoholics Anonymous or join a 12-Step program.  You might also talk to your physician.  Your doctor may prescribe medicine to help prevent you from returning to drinking once you have made the decision to quit, and suggest a place where you could get counseling.  Detoxifying your body of alcohol will be necessary.  Support of family and friends is critical during this time so involving your spouse or family members in counseling will speed your recovery.  Many
community resources are also available to those who are trying to quit drinking.1

1Alcohol Use and Abuse, Age Page of the National Institute on Aging, September 2002

Author’s Note: I personally experienced this with my mother who is in an independent living center.  She had never been a drinker.  However, when I was visiting her at Thanksgiving, I noticed that she was drinking wine.  She claimed that it helped her feel better but it made her more mentally confused and disoriented.  She would forget that she had had a little 15 minutes before and would have another glass.  When we checked, we found that she had wine stashed all over her place.  We removed it and talked to the doctor about it.  He recommended that the nurse give her a little every day but have it monitored because taking it away too suddenly could cause problems too.  She was on oxygen at the time and had a lot of dementia and depression.  She was also being treated for a lot of these issues with medication.  I am sure alcohol and her medications did not mix and it reduced the effectiveness of her oxygen.

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