Alcohol addiction is ruining older lives, too
Source: The Guardian
1 September 2015
Problem drinking among older people is on the increase, with an estimated 20%-25% of over-65s drinking at unsafe levels, according to research published last week by the institute of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience at King’s College London. Moreover, prosecutions for drink-driving of adults over 65 have increased by a sobering 40% in the last 10 years.
I know something of the devastation alcohol addiction can bring from experience within my own family. My much loved aunt struggled with severe alcoholism for 20 years, before falling while drunk in her early 60s and suffering a brain haemorrhage, which led her to develop dementia.
Her husband, my beloved Uncle Pad, cared for her devotedly in extremely difficult circumstances, until it became impossible for him to continue and my aunt went to live in a home. Tragically, by this point my uncle, now in his 70s, had developed an alcohol addiction of his own. He died, as a consequence of his drinking, on Christmas day 2010. His daughter, my cousin Leala, found him dead in the bath with the taps still running.
Now Leala, a political journalist, has made a programme for BBC Radio 4 in which she seeks to understand what happened to her father and why, despite his background as a doctor and his long experience of witnessing his wife’s alcoholism, Pad was unable to prevent himself falling prey to the same addiction. In searching for answers, Leala talks to friends and family, as well as to people struggling with similar problems, campaigners and medical experts. It’s a hugely courageous and important exploration of an addiction so heavily stigmatised that many of those affected go to understandable lengths to keep it hidden, a situation that only serves to perpetuate the problem.
I listened to the programme with tears streaming down my face. How was it possible that this gifted, generous, hugely entertaining and, above all, loving man had reached a point where his existence revolved around a bottle of whisky a day? How was it that my Uncle Pad, who as an 11-year-old boy growing up in Madras (Chennai) snuck out of the window one night to hear the great Indian classical singer MS Subbulakshmi in concert, should have ended his days taking taxis to Lidl (he lost his licence for drink-driving) to stock up on yet more bottles? How could it be that my Uncle Pad, 5ft 1in in his stocking feet, with his gleefully wicked sense of humour – “They’re thinking, ‘What is that lovely woman doing with that funny little old man!”’ he would whisper to me as we passed fellow walkers on the hills behind where he lived – the best storyteller I’ve ever known, failed to escape his own bleakly tragic ending? How could a man who had devoted his life to caring for others both professionally and personally (myself included), prove wholly unable to care for himself or even to accept that he needed help?
The answers to these questions are of course individual, multifaceted and far from straightforward. But what emerges from the programme is just how easily “normal” drinking can escalate and become problematic in response to the transitions and stresses that commonly come with ageing; retirement, loss of a professional role, bereavement, loneliness, deteriorating physical health, the pressures of being a carer. Tolerance to alcohol builds over time; we find ourselves needing to drink more and more in order to achieve the same sense of release. Withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant, and they are relieved by more alcohol. It’s not hard to see how a cycle can develop.
Alcohol problems sneak up over time and people often need to reach crisis point before they can accept that they need help. Tragically, my uncle never did so. As a society we need to ensure that we don’t make the same mistake.