When you think of someone struggling with alcohol abuse, you probably picture a younger person sitting at a bar or spending excessive amounts of time partying with friends. It’s rare that we talk about alcohol abuse among seniors, but it’s a steadily growing problem. When older adults deal with alcohol abuse, their symptoms are often overlooked or misdiagnosed, which intensifies the problem even further. The number of adults in the US over the age of 50 with substance abuse disorders was approximately 2.8 million. By 2020, that number is expected to double. Many adults who deal with alcohol abuse also struggle with depression, which can intensify the problem.
Causes and Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse in Older Adults
There are many things that can cause older adults to become dependent on alcohol later in life. Older adults are more likely to struggle with chronic physical or mental health conditions, and many of them will go to alcohol as a coping mechanism for these uncomfortable symptoms. Financial issues are another common cause of alcohol abuse in older adults. During retirement, seniors may have to adjust to living on a fixed income. If they’ve been used to living on a bigger budget, this can be challenging. Financial challenges can be overwhelming, and some seniors may rely on alcohol as a way to cope with them.
It’s also very common for seniors to deal with feelings of loneliness. There are a number of reasons why this might happen. Many seniors grow apart from their friends in old age as a result of moving or health complications. Seniors with children may feel lonely after their kids move away from home. Older adults are also more likely to have lost close friends, family members, or even a spouse to illness, which can be devastating and traumatic. When seniors no longer have loved ones to rely on, it’s easy for them to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Seniors are also more likely to develop issues with alcohol abuse if they have consistently consumed alcohol throughout their lives.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
There are several key signs of alcohol abuse to be aware of, whether you’re a senior yourself or have a loved one in your life who you think may be at risk. If you notice these signs in yourself or someone you care about, don’t dismiss them, as they can lead to further health issues. These signs include:
- Using alcohol as a way to cope with challenging life events or a bad mood
- Consistently slurring their words, making risky or uncharacteristic decisions, or smelling of alcohol on a regular basis
- Lying about the amount of alcohol they’ve consumed or when they’ve consumed it
- Stashing or hiding alcohol where other people can’t find it
- Consistently in a bad mood or uncharacteristically irritable when they’re sober
- Using alcohol with other drugs
- Making dangerous decisions or putting others in danger as a result of drinking
- Unable to maintain normal work or self-care habits due to their drinking
Alcohol abuse can look different from person to person, which is why it often goes undiagnosed. If there’s any thought that a loved one may be struggling with alcohol abuse, it’s important to get help before things escalate, particularly if you believe they are a danger to themselves or others.
Negative Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol abuse can have serious long-term health effects, which is why it’s very important to treat as early as possible. Alcohol abuse is very damaging to the liver, and these effects are compounded in seniors. This is because the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol slows down as we get older. Because of this, drinking even a small amount of alcohol could be problematic. Alcohol can also exacerbate other health conditions that seniors have. If a senior is struggling with depression or anxiety, alcohol could make their symptoms much worse. Alcohol can also exacerbate symptoms of cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure. Not only will alcohol increase the severity of these symptoms, but it can also negatively interact with medications in a way that can be very dangerous. Alcohol often lowers the efficacy of medications and interacts in dangerous ways that can cause dizziness and a loss of coordination, nausea, heart problems, and other serious issues.
Even in the short term, alcohol can have very serious negative side effects. Drinking alcohol often leads to a loss of coordination, which can cause harmful falls and injuries in seniors. Alcohol is also very dehydrating, which can lead to digestive issues, headache, fatigue, and other short-term problems. When consumed in large quantities on a regular basis, this severe alcohol consumption can lead to cravings and withdrawals. It can also cause blackouts and lead to memory loss.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse
There are many treatment options for alcohol abuse in seniors. This starts with regular screenings for alcohol abuse during yearly checkups. If you help an older friend or family member with their medical care, talk to their doctor to make sure they are screened for alcohol abuse, particularly if they also struggle with depression. If you are starting to see signs of alcohol abuse, talk to a rehab center to see what your options are for an intervention. Many people are hesitant to go seek treatment on their own because of the stigma associated with it. However, an intervention is often effective because it shows your loved one that they are not alone.
Once in a treatment facility, patients will usually go through a supervised detox process. The length of treatment time is going to depend on the severity of the condition and the speed of their recovery. The treatment process will likely also involve individual and group therapy to help deal with any underlying mental health conditions that may be present.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, it’s time to start seeking treatment options. There are rehab centers around the country with programs to treat alcohol abuse, and many even have options specifically for older adults. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone, and with the support of others around you, you can move forward from alcohol abuse.
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