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Practical Caregiving

Senior Drinking Is Not All Fun and Games

By Jean Donahue

Is your elderly loved one drinking more than they used to? Is every day “happy hour” for them? These can be some of the warning signs of senior alcoholism. And while the drinking itself may be the main problem in what you see, it’s still very hard to admit that your loved one may be addicted to alcohol.

You may talk to them about their drinking, drawing out a promise to drink less, but too often it doesn’t really happen. It’s discouraging when this happens – high hopes followed by broken promises -- but it’s simply another clear sign that your loved one may be addicted to alcohol.

As hard as this may be to accept, alcoholism is not uncommon among the elderly. And it is not uncommon for them to hide it – their own secret, or so they think -- until they need someone to start taking care of them.

Then, the cat is out of the bag: senior alcoholism.

At first you may ask yourself how this could have happened. Your loved one may have lived most of their life without developing an addiction to alcohol. Why now?

Before we proceed further on the topic, you need to realize that if this applies to you, you are not alone in caregiving for an alcoholic elderly family member. Many caregivers are faced with this problem every day.

There are many influences that can contribute to your loved one’s situation. They may be bored, lonely, in pain, have lost most of their friends, feel useless, and many other reasons that have contributed to their drinking more. There are an endless number of situations that can cause someone to drink more than they should. What’s important is to find an effective way to deal with the problem.

Let’s take a closer look:

First of all you need to know more about alcoholism. A person does not decide to become addicted to alcohol. It happens gradually. They may drink for social interaction or because of some of the reasons listed above. They gradually turn to alcohol because it makes things seem better. As the body becomes addicted to alcohol it also makes their body feels better.

As a general rule, a woman cannot drink as much as a man because their body absorbs alcohol more quickly but metabolizes it more slowly. What that means is that it stays in her body longer. Also, a woman becomes dependant more quickly than a man.

There have been some studies that indicate a little wine each day is beneficial to a person’s health. What people don’t always understand is that too much wine will be very detrimental to their health. A man typically can have two glasses of wine daily and a woman less than two glasses.

Drinking habits are rooted in emotional as well as physical dependence on alcohol. For someone to admit they have a drinking problem, the implication is that they want to do something to stop drinking – and your loved one may not be ready now to give it up. Instead, they may mistakenly believe that drinking actually helps them cope with life, rather than make it more difficult. They may believe that they can’t function if they don’t have another drink to help them.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) uses a list of questions designed to help determine if one is an alcoholic. You can also use these as a guide to assess your elderly loved one. If you answer “yes” to four or more questions, your loved one is probably in trouble with alcohol. But remember, this is a guideline, not a substitute for professional help.

Here are the questions, courtesy of AA:

1 - Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but it only lasted for a couple of days?

2 - Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking -- stop telling you what to do?

3 - Have you ever switched from one kind of drink to another in the hope that this would keep you from getting drunk?

4 - Have you had to have an eye-opener upon awakening during the past year?

5 - Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?

6 - Have you had problems connected with drinking during the past year?

7 - Has your drinking caused trouble at home?

8 - Do you ever try to get "extra" drinks at a party because you do not \get enough?

9 - Do you tell yourself you can stop drinking any time you want to, even though you keep getting drunk when you don't mean to?

10 - Have you missed days of work or school because of drinking?

11 - Do you have "blackouts"?

12 - Have you ever felt that your life would be better if you did not drink?

There are several ways to help an alcoholic, but no matter which you choose, it is essential that your loved one first realize they drink too much and that things must change. You, your friends, or your loved one’s doctor can talk about it but that does not mean your loved one will admit they drink too much.

Once they cross this threshold of acknowledgement, move fast to get them the help that matters:

1 - Check with your local hospital to find alcoholic treatment centers and contact them for help.

2 – Contact Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which is one of the best known groups to help the alcoholic. You can find your local AA at http://www.aa.org/.

Remember, there is help for this disease!

[Editor’s Note: The preceding 12 questions have been excerpted from material appearing in the pamphlet, "Is A.A. For You?", and has been reprinted with permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. ("A.A.W.S") Permission to reprint this material does not mean that A.A.W.S. has reviewed and/or endorses this publication. A.A is a program of recovery from alcoholism.]