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Is Grandma a Closet Alcoholic?

butlerA little wine now and again, especially red wine, can be beneficial to our health. However, disturbing facts have emerged from a recent survey in the United Kingdom (UK) that should alert all of us to the dangers of alcohol abuse by seniors. Charity Foundation66 conducted a survey of the drinking habits of 857 people aged 60 and over. Here are the main findings of this and a related poll:

  • One in eight (13%) admitted to drinking more following retirement.
  • Of these, one in five (19%) uses alcohol because of depression, and one in eight (13%) drinks to deal with bereavement.
  • Almost one in eight (12%) older drinkers usually drink alone at home.
  • A separate poll found one in 10 adults worried about the amount of alcohol consumed by a friend or family member aged 60 or over.

Alcohol abuse poses additional risks to older drinkers, particularly because of frailty, medication and health problems. Heavy drinking raises the risk of high blood pressure, class 2 diabetes and dementia. Drinking too much can also lead to falls that can seriously injure an older person. Alcohol-related hospital admissions of seniors in England rose by 75% between 20023 and 2007/8.

Don Shenker, the chief executive of the UK charity Alcohol Concern, said: “If the high number of older drinkers seems shocking, it’s because these are a group of drinkers who hide their problems in the home. Social isolation, physical ill health, bereavement and a variety of social factors can play a part in an older person developing alcohol misuse problems and the associated health risks.” The British Medical Journal advises physicians to start looking for signs of alcohol abuse, noting that “This is particularly important because the symptoms can go undetected or misdiagnosed with elderly people as screening instruments and diagnostic criteria are geared towards younger people.”

This isn’t just a problem in the UK, it’s a rising concern in Japan, most of Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States, all of whom have aging populations. The American Medical Association publishes the following list of physical symptoms that doctors can look for when diagnosing alcoholism. If an older patient shows several symptoms, there is a high probability the person is alcoholic.

  • Bruises, abrasions, and scars in locations that might suggest frequent falls, bumping into objects, physical altercations, or other violent behavior.
  • Cigarette burns on the fingers.
  • Flushed or florid faces.
  • Jerky eye movement or loss of central vision.
  • Damage to nerves causing numbness and tingling.
  • Hypertension, particularly systolic.
  • Gastrointestinal or other bleeding.
  • Cirrhosis or other evidence of liver impairment, such as edema in the lower extremities, and other signs of fluid retention.
  • Psoriasis and signs of immunodeficient disorders.

Additional symptoms to look for in an older adult are published by The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment:

  • Sleep complaints, observable changes in sleep patterns, unusual fatigue, malaise, daytime drowsiness, apparent sedation.
  • Seizures, malnutrition, muscle wasting.
  • Depression and/or anxiety.
  • Unexplained complaints about chronic pain.
  • Incontinence, urinary retention or difficulty urinating.
  • Poor hygiene and self-neglect.
  • Unusual restlessness or agitation.
  • Complaints of blurred vision or dry mouth.
  • Unexplained nausea and vomiting or gastrointestinal distress.
  • Change in eating habits.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Tremor, motor uncoordination, shuffling gait.

We’re not suggesting that you spy on your senior loved ones, but calling or visiting them frequently at different times of day and looking for the symptoms may alert you to a problem. Using a webcam (at the bottom of the page) so that you can see them could also be better than just talking to them on a ‘phone. Alcoholism can be beaten, but it’s a slow road. Catching it early is much more likely to help than being polite and hoping it just isn’t true.

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