Compassionate Attention: Recognizing Alcoholism in Aging Adults


Compassionate Attention: Recognizing Alcoholism in Aging Adults 

“Alcoholism” is a very weighty word and it can be difficult to even say it out loud let alone have the difficult conversation with an aging loved one. Difficult as it might be, it is worth getting help as the extreme health risks associated with the behavior are only compounded by old age. Among the factors are:  

  • Mixing prescription medications and alcohol: This is particularly dangerous with medications for diabetes or high blood pressure. The average person over the age of 65 takes at least 2 medications a day and mixing alcohol even with aspirin can be dangerous and even lethal.
  • Increase Sensitivity: Older consumers are more impaired by moderate consumption. In fact, the same amount of consumption that they have maintained for years, may create a problem the older the get.
  • Isolation. For older adults living alone, it may be more difficult to gauge changes in behavior.
  • Increased stressors: Life changes such as declining health, moves, loneliness, and deaths can trigger substance abuse as a coping mechanism.   

Depression and Alcoholism

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans age 65 or older. The connection between depression alcoholism is twofold. One, symptoms and signs of each are often mistaken for conditions associated with age and can leave both untreated. Two, seniors who are depressed are also much more likely to abuse alcohol as a coping mechanism. Symptoms of alcoholism, such as lost coordination, balance, and reaction time can increase the number of household accidents and falls. Symptoms of depression in older persons can differ somewhat from others. NAMI characterizes them by:

  • Increased memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vague complaints of pain
  • Irritability
  • Persistent and vague complaints
  • Help-seeking
  • Moving in a slow manner
  • Demanding behavior

We can give compassionate attention to our loved ones by looking for changes in behavior.

 What to watch for:

  • Other addictive behavioral patterns such as hoarding, gambling,
  • Pay close attention around the death of a spouse or close friend. Often grief and depression are confused and destructive coping strategies are missed.
  • Watch carefully during life changes such as failing health, moving, loneliness and boredom.
  • Continued drinking despite health complications, mood changes

Getting a love one the help they need to stop drinking always begins with a non-judgmental approach. According to the National Institute on Aging, here are simple steps that they can take to help overcome unhealthy drinking habits and addictions:

  •  Ask your doctor about medicine that will work for you.
  • Talk to a trained counselor who knows about alcohol problems in older people
  • Find a support group for older people with alcohol problems.
  • Check out a 12-step program, like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), that offers support to people who want to stop drinking.
  • Locate an individual, family, or group therapy that works best for you.

Many older adults decide to quit drinking in later life. You can do it too. There are many things you can do to cut back or stop drinking. You can:

  • Count how many ounces of alcohol you are getting in each drink.
  • Keep track of the number of drinks you have each day.
  • Decide how many days a week you want to drink. Plan some days that are free of alcohol.
  • Pace yourself when you drink. Don’t have more than one alcoholic drink in an hour. In place of alcohol, drink water, juice, or soda.
  • Make sure to eat when drinking. Alcohol will enter your system more slowly if you eat some food.
  • Ask for support from your family and advice from your healthcare provider. Get the help you need to quit.
  • Take time to plan ahead. Here are some things you can do:
  • Develop interests that don’t involve alcohol.
  • Avoid people, places, and times of day that may trigger your drinking.
  • Plan what you will do if you have an urge to drink.
  • Learn to say “no, thanks” when you’re offered an alcoholic drink.
  • Remember to stay healthy for the fun things in life—birth of a grandchild, a long hoped for trip, or a holiday party.

If you are concerned about the unhealthy behaviors in your loved one’s life, a Geriatric Care Manager and in-home caregiver can be a huge help in noticing and responding to small changes before they become larger problems later. As experts in eldercare, they always balance safety and quality of life for your loved one and can help navigate family dynamics, advocate for your loved one, and help them engage in a healthy lifestyle. 

Published on March 20, 2013.