Alcoholism in the elderly is actually a common problem, but often one that gets overlooked so much so that elderly alcoholics are called the "hidden population."
Studies of elderly alcoholism show that about 30 percent develop the disease late in life, while the remaining 70 percent come into old age with alcohol-related issues ranging from binge drinking to full-blown alcohol addiction.
The biggest risk factor of alcoholism among older adults is that it often combines with various prescription drugs, which in turn dramatically increases the potential of negative interactions, illness and death.
Over the last 100 years, our society has increasingly moved elderly people out of the center of social and familial interaction, typically into retirement homes or nursing homes. This means that there are far fewer individuals around consistently to recognize the symptoms of elderly alcoholism.
Additionally, unlike youthful binge drinkers, seniors don’t usually have legal troubles associated with indulging because many do not drive or get into bar fights (for example). At retirement age few seniors face unemployment due to drinking. This means it’s much easier to excuse odd behavior as just old age quirks. Nothing immediately sends up warning flags to family and professionals alike.
Even when family gets called in due to a health problem or injury, it’s not always evident that alcohol abuse is to blame. Frequently medical professional simply blame advancing age and fragile bones rather than looking for other causes for problems. Many of the symptoms of dementia mirror those of alcoholism, for example, and an older person falling can be diagnosed as poor eyesight or calcium loss.
Finally many family members hesitate to butt into an elder’s personal life feeling that their choices should be respected (and that there’s no harm involved). However, the physical consequences of continued alcoholism in the elderly shouldn’t be under estimated. Elderly alcoholism can shorten a lifespan considerably, not to mention the quality of life.
In a review of elderly alcoholism we find the following statistics:
Bear in mind that the recommended safe levels of alcohol for senior citizens is less than younger individuals because the body cannot metabolize it as well. The American Geriatric Society recommends no more than one drink a day (or 7 over a whole week).
Alcoholism in the elderly can be diagnosed and treated, but the first step is for doctors and family alike to be more aware and informed of this growing problem. Everyone should at least consider if alcohol factors into memory loss, sleep disorders, depression, and injury (just to name a few). The good news is that once diagnosed, senior alcoholics do well in treatment programs. In fact, these programs provide a vital source of socialization and support, especially if they’re geared to an older client with suitable modifications for age-related limitations (like hearing loss or wheel chairs).