In our culture today, a few glasses of wine with dinner or a nightcap before bed is nothing to frown upon. But when is the line crossed into more serious territory? Especially in old age, with more idle time and less obligations, drinking can become a highly enticing way to pass the time, cope with loneliness and sooth physical and mental pain.
Alcohol abuse is a serious issue that harms society as much as the individuals themselves. The US census forecasts that there will be 83 million people over the age of 65 by 2050. Another study suggests that the number of older Americans with a substance abuse disorder will double between 2006 and 2020. This leaves 5.7 million elderly individuals in need of substance abuse assistance, overwhelmingly for alcohol abuse. This is a huge cause for concern as baby boomers age and flood the healthcare system. If we want to temper this growing reliance on medical attention for alcohol abuse, it is imperative that we address the issue in our own homes.
Here are a few signs to look for in determining whether or not your loved one has a substance abuse problem:
- Dementia Symptoms – It is easy to confuse symptoms of alcohol abuse and medication overdose with standard old age forgetfulness or the onset of dementia. The symptoms are largely the same, such as general confusion or disorientation, and need to be investigated by a primary care physician. It is possible that the person is drinking too much, not taking their medications as directed, or is being harmed by a combination of medication and alcohol. Be sure to look into substance abuse and medication mix-ups first before assuming dementia.
- Loneliness – This is one of the key causes of self-medication practices like alcohol abuse. Isolation is a frequent occurrence among the elderly, who may have lost the spouses, family members, and friends that previously kept them company. As individuals become more isolated, they often deal with that pain through drinking. If an older person in your life is living a lonesome lifestyle, it’s important to make an effort to visit them and include them in social gatherings as much as possible.
- Depression – One of the most common conditions among the elderly, depression is a frequent cause of heavy drinking. After the completion of our roles as parents and professionals, it can be hard to find a primary focus in life that fulfills our needs. This can lead to emptiness and disenchantment with life, as we find ample time to ruminate on the problems at hand. The key is to find meaningful activities to engage in at all ages. Joining community groups, volunteering, or continuing education are all great ways to ward off depression.
It is important not to write off signs of alcohol abuse as the usual signs of aging. If all signs are pointing to this type of self-harm, it is important gently engage with the person about the issue, and gauge the problems that may be leading to this self-destructive behavior. Our elderly population deserves to be fulfilled and engaged in all phases of life, and we should make ourselves readily available to lend any needed support.
Do you have any experience with alcoholism? How did you address the situation? What advice would you have for others struggling to find help? Share your thoughts with the community.