By Shannon McQuaid, LMFT, LISAC, CDWF, CSAT-C
The statistics are startling: 2.5 million older adults suffer from an alcohol or drug problem. Widowers age 75 and older have the highest rate of alcoholism and elderly addiction in the U.S., while nearly half of nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems. Four out of five seniors who seek treatment for substance abuse have a problem with alcohol versus other types of drugs.
And the problem only looks to get worse. Data presented this year at the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry’s annual meeting showed that by 2020, 4.4 million older Americans adults will need treatment for alcoholism, up 60% from the year 2000.
The good news is that it is never too late to stop drinking, even for people with severe alcohol-related liver disease, researchers have found. For example, a study out of the U.K.’s University of Southampton found that abstinence from alcohol at one month after receiving a diagnosis of cirrhosis resulted in a seven-year survival rate of 72% versus 44% for the people who continued to drink.
‘A Complete Turnaround’
Proof that recovery is possible at any age can be found in the case of a 72-year-old man who recently came to Promises Scottsdale having never before been in treatment. He had begun drinking heavily at 23, so it was pretty amazing to me that he would come in at his age.
Robert, as I’ll call him, was urged by his grandchildren to get help. He was in terrible physical shape when he arrived at our door — malnourished, couldn’t walk without help, really just wasting away. But within two weeks, he began getting around on his own, going to the gym, doing yoga. After six weeks, he had gained 20 pounds and we began to see a wonderful sense of humor emerge. He was even spotted outside playing basketball with the other men in our program.
“‘I never thought I would laugh or enjoy life again like I am,’” Robert told me one day. This gentleman, who came in distant, quiet, grumpy and guarded, left very open, vulnerable and able to share his feelings. He really developed a joy for life. Robert made a complete turnaround, and it’s a good thing that he did, because while he was here, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. It’s great he’s getting healthy so he can support her.
Like many people, Robert made the decision to seek treatment not only at the urging of family, but at the realization that he was missing out on life because of his addiction. He had been isolated, just staying at home with his family, for a long time. Now he’s developed a whole new network of friends at the house.
Among the therapies we use at Promises Scottsdale is The Daring WayTM shame resilience curriculum. Based on the research of Dr. Brené Brown, the program helps clients explore such topics as vulnerability, courage and trust in relation to shame. For Robert, developing the vulnerability to share with others without fearing that they would disconnect from him was a key part of his therapy — in fact, he had his first exposure to Alcoholics Anonymous while in treatment.
Robert’s positive experience in alcohol rehab is not uncommon. Research shows that older adults tend to do even better than their younger counterparts in treatment. They attend more therapy sessions, are more likely to take their medications, and are less prone to relapse.
The abuse of alcohol and other drugs is dangerous for anyone, but it is particularly harmful for older adults. Alcohol hits us harder as we age, which is why the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism implores men 65 and over to have no more than seven drinks per week and no more than two on any one day. Older women should have less than one standard drink a day. This is due to the fact that the liver and kidneys function less effectively, meaning that alcohol and other drugs stay in the body longer. What’s more, the elderly are more likely to be on medications, which can become less effective when mixed with alcohol. Heavy drinking can also exacerbate such health concerns as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and liver problems. For diabetics, consuming alcohol can affect blood sugar levels.
Certain physical changes and behaviors may indicate an older adult is abusing alcohol. Here are some of them:
- Frequent mood swings
- Falls, bruises and other injuries
- Problems sleeping
- Memory loss
- Poor hygiene
- Poor nutrition
- Failure to keep appointments
If you suspect a family member or friend is drinking too much or using other drugs, let them know of your concern and that it is all right to ask for help. Treatment can address both the addiction as well as the underlying psychological issues like loneliness or depression that can trigger substance abuse. You might begin the conversation with a loved one by asking if they have spoken with their doctor about how the medications they’re taking interact with alcohol.
The abuse of alcohol and other drugs is dangerous at any age, but it is especially harmful for the elderly. On the flip side, alcohol rehab is especially effective for older men and women. Don’t let another day go by without seeking help for a loved one or for yourself. Like Robert found, laughter and joy await in recovery.