Alcohol Use and Abuse Among Seniors

When you think of an alcoholic, you think of someone who is between the ages of 30 and 50. They are probably male, living alone, not working, and struggling with their mental and physical health. 

In fact, alcoholism affects people of all ages and from all walks of life, and it is becoming increasingly common in seniors. Approximately 11% of all elderly hospital admissions involve drugs or alcohol and estimates suggest that this problem is getting worse.

Many alcoholics may not realize they have a problem, and this problem could also go unnoticed by friends and loved ones. In this guide, we’ll look at some of the symptoms of elderly alcohol abuse, while also highlighting the causes and treatments.

What Constitutes Alcohol Abuse?

Someone who abuses alcohol isn’t necessarily an alcoholic. An alcoholic is someone who is dependent on alcohol. They may drink it every day and feel withdrawal symptoms if they try to go without. Alcohol abuse, however, can happen once or twice a week and can occur without dependence.

Binge drinking, for instance, is a form of alcohol abuse. It involves drinking an excessive amount of alcohol, to the point where it has a severely negative impact on the body. If you do this multiple times a week, you are placing yourself at risk for numerous complications and conditions, and the older you are, the higher these risks become. 

If you drink alcohol every day and suffer severely when you go without, you may be addicted to alcohol. If you drink occasionally and to excess, you may be abusing alcohol.

How to Tell if Someone is Addicted to Alcohol

If you’re worried about a loved one’s alcohol intake or believe that you may have a problem, look out for the following signs:

  • Struggle to get through a single day without alcohol. They may insist that they “can if they want to,” but that they simply “don’t want to.” This is rarely the case.
  • Constantly find excuses to drink alcohol.
  • Fluctuations in weight.
  • Not happy unless they are drinking.
  • Bloodshot eyes.
  • Jaundiced eyes and skin.
  • Suffer withdrawal symptoms when alcohol consumption is stopped abruptly.

What are the Causes of Alcohol Abuse in Seniors?

Loneliness is a leading cause of alcohol and drug abuse. The older you get, the more at risk you are, and the more damage it causes. It gets harder to make new friends, you get stuck in a routine, and before you know it you have nothing but a dog or cat and occasional phone calls to keep you busy.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some people are happy with their routines, even if they don’t involve a lot of people. That said, many seniors crave communication, and when you take that away they look for solace in other places, including alcohol.

This situation is worsened by the death of a spouse. It’s common for widows to turn to alcohol as a way of coping.

Habit is also a leading cause of alcoholism. You begin with a glass of red wine after dinner. This is followed by a few beers while watching the game on the weekend. One glass of wine becomes two and a few beers becomes a dozen. Before you know it, years have passed, and you’re stuck with a habit that is causing incremental damage without you realizing it.

Problems with the Elderly and Alcohol Abuse

Dehydration becomes more common as you age. Your kidneys become less effective and your body holds onto less water. Combined with the dehydrating effects of alcohol, this can lead to chronic dehydration and potentially serious complications. 

In addition, the body becomes less effective at digesting alcohol—you need less to feel the effects and those effects are stronger.

Some of the other side effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Heart attacks and strokes
  • Memory loss
  • Depression and anxiety

Alcohol can also interact with multiple medications, causing a host of complications ranging from fatigue and dizziness to seizures and melancholy.

Additionally, alcohol abuse and addiction can drastically lower your life expectancy and leave you with a host of problems that you may never recover from. 

Seniors often use the excuse that they have been drinking for years and have gotten away with it thus far, as if their bodies are somehow immune to the damage following years of abuse. In reality, their body has been slowly deteriorating and every drink takes them closer to breaking point.

The good news is that a lot of the damage is reversible if you stop drinking and sober up. 

How to Treat Alcohol Abuse in the Elderly

Most addictive substances can be stopped “cold turkey” without any serious adverse effects or complications. For instance, while the symptoms of opiate withdrawal are incredibly uncomfortable and often compared to a really bad flu, acute withdrawals usually pass in under a week and the risk of serious complications is low.

But it is a very different story with alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and include everything from hallucinations, tremors, and sweating to seizures and disorientation. If you have been drinking for many years and feel ill when you stop, consult with a medical expert first.

That doesn’t mean you should use this as an excuse to continue drinking, but the medical expert might advise that you taper your consumption or take a medication to prevent complications. 

As with any addiction, getting over the withdrawals is not the only consideration. You need to break the habit and make changes to your life that facilitate a cleaner, substance-free existence. You should also tell your loved ones and close friends so that they don’t place you in the way of temptation and provide support when needed.

People feel embarrassed when they are addicted and often try to deal with the issue themselves. While opening up will be difficult at first, it will ultimately make life easier for you and improve your chances of going sober.