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Tuesday, 07 August 2018 08:00

How to approach alcohol abuse in the elderly

Alcoholism amongst the elderly is far more common than most people realise. Whether it’s a lifelong addiction or a relatively new habit, many families may have a senior family member who harbours this life-threatening habit.

Due to the fact that many of these seniors are able to make their own decisions on a daily basis, the problem goes largely unnoticed or is completely avoided by friends and family altogether.

To add to this, the side-effects and signs of alcoholism in seniors are often mistaken or overlooked as mere side-effects of aging. Though these side-effects may appear similar, the root cause is vastly different.

Recognising the symptoms and the cause

In senior alcoholism there are generally two patterns of drinking – early onset alcoholism and late onset alcoholism. Some seniors may have developed a habitual drinking problem many years ago and have grown to become functioning alcoholics.

Others may only develop a drinking problem later in life, triggered by major life changes such as the death of a loved one, the onset of a disease or disability, loneliness and depression. It’s a well-known fact that alcoholism and depression are closely linked, not only in the elderly.

If you suspect a loved one of harbouring a drinking problem, here are some of the tell-tale signs to look out for:

  • They drink as an excuse to calm themselves, forget about their worries or overcome depression
  • They consume their drink(s) much faster than everyone else
  • They often indulge in more than one drink a day (one glass of wine, one can of beer etc.)
  • They often lie/ fib or make excuses for their drinking habits
  • They have hurt themselves on more than one occasion due to drinking related incidents
  • They have a high alcohol tolerance
  • They are highly irritable, frustrated or unpleasant when not drinking
  • They have financial or medical worries associated with drinking
  • They tend to avoid social occasions where alcohol is not permitted.

With this in mind, it’s important to remember that not every senior who drinks regularly has a problem and not all functional alcoholics drink every day.

How to tackle the subject of alcohol abuse

This is always going to be a major point of contention between your loved one and family members. The best way to approach the subject is in a calm, rational manner with the end-goal of offering help and support, not judgement. You will need to make sure the senior is willing to talk about their problem. Addressing the issue when they are on back-foot is the worst possible way to approach the subject.

In some cases, highlighting a potential drinking problem to their physician can be beneficial in approaching the subject and spurring on change. This also works if you’re trying to address issues of safety – such as drunk driving. This largely depends on the doctor and should be discussed with them before approaching your loved one.

If you’re looking for help, a doctor can recommend 12-step programmes as well as a detoxification regime with prescription medications to help prevent alcohol relapses. Individual and group counselling is also an option, with many programmes focused on identifying situations or triggers for alcohol abuse

Family support during alcohol recovery is paramount, so always let your loved one know you are there for them, every step of the way.

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