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Alcoholism in Seniors

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonOctober 1, 2015

Is there risk involved with serving alcohol at senior living communities? If seniors have been drinking their whole lives, it doesn’t seem fair to suddenly take away a social pastime. But substance abuse in the elderly is a real problem.

Read below for the pros and cons of serving alcohol in senior living communities.

Alcoholism in Seniors

What’s wrong with enjoying a drink or two when you’ve reached your golden years? Maybe nothing, if the alcoholic drinks are consumed safely and responsibly. But opinions are split on whether it’s a good thing to serve alcohol in senior living communities for many reasons, including late onset alcoholism.

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While some argue that it’s safer to provide alcohol in a regulated setting, where residents can consume it under the supervision of senior living staff, others cite the increased health dangers of alcohol consumption in seniors, and the potential for substance abuse in the elderly.

A recent study in Research on Agingsuggests that nearly 70% of assisted living residents consume alcohol, and over a third drink alcohol daily. Many researchers are taking this as a sign that it’s time to take a closer look at alcohol in senior living, and whether it’s right for senior living communities to regulate their residents’ drinking habits.

Should Assisted Living Serve Alcohol?

There’s no doubt about it — plenty of complications go along with seniors drinking alcohol. When there’s substance abuse in the elderly coupled with other health problems, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and heart disease — and the list goes on — health can decline rapidly and senior behavior and happiness can be at stake.

Responsible alcohol consumption and effective drinking policies have to take these factors into account:

  1. When people age, their alcohol tolerance weakens, and the effects of drinking alcohol tend to be more pronounced. A Baylor University study on rats earlier this year was only the latest in a long string of data showing that the aged experience greater alcohol-related impairment, creating late onset alcoholism. Our bodies can’t metabolize it as effectively, and as a result, seniors can experience more significant coordination and memory problems and an increased risk of falls and accidents — a real problem in those with limited mobility.
  2. Alcohol can aggravate existing medical conditions in seniors, create complications in medical treatment, and even cause new conditions. Common medical conditions that are exacerbated by alcohol include diabetes, osteoporosis and malnutrition, notes the West Virginia University School of Public Health.
  3. Seniors in assisted living often take multiple medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. Combining alcohol with medications can be risky, causing drug interactions that may reduce the effects of the medication or, conversely, render it more dangerous or even toxic.
  4. Seniors have additional risk factors for alcoholism that younger adults don’t. Getting older can come with physical pain, emotional stress, and loneliness. Feelings of isolation from the death of a spouse, the stress of moving out of the family home and into senior living, or a difficult transition into retirement, can lead to increased alcohol use and even dependence. Late onset alcoholism can be a result.

With the above factors to consider, it’s easy to understand why some senior living communities might decide it isn’t worth the risk to serve alcohol. Contributing to substance abuse in elderly residents is also something many physicians, senior care professionals and families frown upon. It’s all about the healthy balance of a cocktail every now and again, compared to multiple drinks daily for the elderly residents.

Finding Assisted Living for Alcoholic Parents

It is important to note that the statistics are not clear-cut. The Research on Aging study found that 28% of senior residents make potentially unwise choices about alcohol consumption. However, the study was conducted in assisted living communities independent of their policies on alcohol. Those policies vary widely, from communities with outright bans, to those who allow consumption only in designated areas or with physician permission, to those with their own happy hours and on-site lounges. That tells us that, regardless of alcohol policies, alcohol is being consumed.

From there, one could conclude that maybe it doesn’t matter whether alcohol is regulated or not; residents who want to drink are going to find ways to do so. But that also doesn’t mean it’s safe. Also, it’s notoriously difficult to detect alcohol dependence or abuse in older adults. When asked by a doctor, they may underreport the amount they consume. Physical symptoms of alcohol dependence may be attributed to other medical conditions, like Alzheimer’s. Also, family members may be in denial about their loved ones’ drinking habits.

But finding the right senior living community for your loved one plays a huge role in the ‘substance abuse in elderly’ problem. If drinking is important — and has always been a big part of your loved one’s life — then finding a community that regulates alcohol may be the best option for your family. Consulting your doctor for recommendations on the healthiest options for your senior, as far as both emotional happiness and overall health, have to be considered. If a physician strongly recommends that your loved one should not be drinking for specific health reasons, there are programs for your loved ones, in addition to assisted living communities that can cater to their needs to fill the alcohol void.

Late Onset Alcoholism

While some people develop alcoholism early in life, others develop it during their golden years. Typically people affected by early-onset alcoholism have a genetic or biological susceptibility that makes them unusually vulnerable to addiction. But people who are affected by late onset alcoholism usually don’t have a genetic predisposition, but instead encounter situations in their everyday life — that are either physically or mentally challenging — that support a pattern of excessive alcohol intake, leading to alcoholism.

One of the main problems with late onset alcoholism is that as people age, their bodies are more susceptible to problems from drinking. They could have a medical condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s that, when combined with alcohol, can become completely unmanageable for caregivers.

Families and senior living communities need to provide a good support system to either help prevent late onset alcoholism, or work with the senior to find something fun and engaging to help distract and discourage drinking. It is strongly recommended you consult physicians in the case of your loved ones suffering from substance abuse late in life.

Aging and Alcoholism: Thoughts on Preventing Alcohol Abuse in Seniors

The issue, clearly, is a thorny one. There have been many studies citing the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, making it even more difficult to argue for an outright ban. Also complicating matters is the idea of respect for the autonomy of residents in senior living communities. Most of us find the thought of treating our elder loved ones like children, micromanaging their day-to-day behaviors, to be distasteful.

Perhaps the emphasis would be better placed on prevention of alcohol dependence and abuse, promotion of responsible alcohol use, and treatment of those already battling alcoholism, rather than on restricting access in the first place. Even the authors of the Research on Aging study say they are not advocating an alcohol ban in assisted living.

“Taking away things elders enjoy is the last thing we want to do,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Nicholas Castle, in the New York Times’ New Old Age blog. But, he said:

“We want to at least put this on the radar screen. This exists. Maybe there should be more awareness. Maybe there should be therapies and treatments.”

Do you have any personal experiences with late onset alcoholism in seniors? Do you think senior living communities should regulate or restrict alcohol?  Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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