The effects of alcohol change with aging (opinion)
By Judson Haims, Special to The Aspen Times
March 11, 2019
If your parent, neighbor or any person you may care for were to become ill or needed assistance, you would do everything possible to help. Wouldn’t you? When that same person shows signs of having a problem with alcohol or prescription drugs, people often have negative views and may be less willing to help and address the issue.
“I won’t stay here and watch you die” is a statement I have heard a number of times over the years from the spouses and family members who are concerned that their aging loved one who may be consuming alcohol in amounts that may be harmful to their safety and health. In response, I have also heard aging loved ones say, “I’ve been on this Earth for many years, I’ve earned the right to make my own decisions.” Or sometimes I’ve heard, “I only have a couple of drinks, I know when I’ve had too much. Your concern is appreciated, but I’m OK.”
Too frequently, this is where conversations frequently go awry. People with addiction are often defensive of their actions and when confronted about their actions, they frequently become more defensive. Giving examples of situations where a person acted inappropriately or caused harm to themselves is rarely received well. When faced with such a situation, it may be best to stop, think, and try to avoid conflict and accusations. Understanding, listening and compassion may be the best tools available for furthering this conversation.
Unfortunately, as people age, combat the loss of a loved one, experience loneliness, depression or become less able to do the things the way they once did, many turn to alcohol and drugs. While in our younger years our tolerance to alcohol was probably higher, however as we age the effects of alcohol become more extreme. With less muscle and less water weight in our body as we age, the effects of alcohol can be much more intense for seniors.
Alcohol and substance abuse are not problems that are isolated to any particular age group — it’s a serious issue among all ages. Alcoholism and the misuse of prescription drugs have become a life-threatening epidemic, especially for older people. It is estimated that 70 percent of all hospitalized older persons and up to 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems.
Complicating this is the fact that over 35 percent of people over the age of 70 take five or more prescription medications. Often, one of the medications is a sedative or tranquilizer which worsens a concern of alcoholism.
The symptoms of drug and alcohol misuse may be difficult to recognize in the elderly. While shaky hands, falls and forgetfulness could be normal symptoms of aging, they may also be signs of drug or alcohol abuse. The most noticeable side effects of misusing alcohol as we age consist of balance issues, cognitive problems, delirium, depression and sleep disorders.
Listed below are some guidelines to keep in mind as you prepare to hold a discussion with an older love one showing signs of alcohol or substance abuse:
Don’t address concerns when he/she is drinking.
Be gentle and loving. Avoid a confrontational style.
Don’t bother pouring alcohol down the sink or throwing away sedative or tranquilizer. If your loved one is not yet ready to get help, they will simply replenish the supply.
Don’t dig up painful events from the past. Focus on the effects that the alcohol and prescriptions are having now.
Instead of talking things out in one session, you may have to bring up the subject a little bit at a time.
Talk about the effects of alcohol or drug use on whatever the person cares about most — for example, the way their drinking effects their relationship with their spouse, yourself, siblings and grandchildren.
Don’t worry if you don’t say things perfectly. The most important thing is that you express your concern with gentleness and respect.
It’s important to remember that there is always help and a support system out there for you and your loved one(s), regardless of age.