Perhaps Uncle Richard seems to have one too many at family gatherings, or Grandma Rose is indulging with a bottle of wine more often than she used to. But they’ve lived their lives and have earned time to relax, right? Unfortunately, this sort of mindset is part of why alcohol abuse has become a serious problem among aging Americans. Baby Boomers are abusing alcohol at rates not seen among their parents’ generation, and it’s leading to devastating consequences for today’s senior citizens.

  • Substance abuse affects 17 percent of American adults aged 60 years and older. This includes alcohol and drug abuse as well as dependency on medications. By 2020, this number of seniors with a substance problem is expected to double.
  • 80 percent of seniors who seek substance abuse treatment have a problem with alcohol.
  • 9 percent of seniors over 65 drink more than 4 drinks on any occasion and over 30 drinks per month.
  • Widowers over 75 years old experience the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.
  • Seniors are hospitalized for alcohol-related problems as often as heart attacks.

Substance abuse in seniors may be the result of habits carried over from their younger years (early-onset), or it may be a new problem that arises as seniors cope with the challenges of aging (late-onset). Most seniors experiencing alcohol abuse are early-onset drinkers, but about one third start drinking late in life. When they aren’t equipped with social supports and healthy coping mechanisms, seniors may turn to alcohol after the death of a loved one, a disability-causing injury, or post-retirement loneliness.

While drinking to excess is harmful for anyone, it’s especially so for older adults. As people age, their ability to metabolize drugs and alcohol declines, lowing their tolerance and leaving their bodies more susceptible to the harmful effects of substance abuse. For this reason, it’s recommended that adults aged 65 years and older limit themselves to one drink daily and no more than two drinks on any one occasion. If a senior takes prescription or over-the-counter medications, they should be even more cautious: combining alcohol with medication can cause internal bleeding, heart problems, and even death.

Unfortunately, alcohol abuse among seniors often gets overlooked. Family members may mistake the signs of alcoholism for senility or be hesitant to confront an older family member about their drinking habits. People may feel that it’s too late to change an older family member with a drinking problem or worry about causing offense.

However, treatment can help seniors kick their habit, regain a strong mind and body, and enjoy independent living for longer. Seniors who abuse alcohol are more prone to falls, car accidents, and harmful medication interactions. They may experience organ damage, cognitive decline, and a premature death.

Families should monitor older relatives for the signs of substance abuse and encourage them to seek help if their drinking becomes problematic. A senior with a drinking problem may neglect self-care, experience frequent accidents and injuries, show signs of cognitive decline, be irritable, and experience gastrointestinal problems.

Seniors struggling with alcohol abuse can find support in inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, addiction support groups, and therapy. There are even treatment programs designed specifically for adults over 50 to address the specific needs of alcohol-dependent seniors. If a senior drinks to cope with a mental illness such as depression, a treatment plan should include therapy and medication to address the underlying issue. For some older adults, medication to treat alcohol addiction may be the right choice.

Alcohol abuse among the elderly is a serious problem that shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re concerned about the drinking habits of a senior citizen you know, talk to them about their drinking habits, encourage them to access treatment, and offer your support during their journey to recovery.

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