Alcohol Use, Abuse And Dependence in the Senior Population | Torrance Memorial

Published on May 17, 2021

Alcohol Use, Abuse And Dependence In The Senior Population

senior male with empty bottle

Written by Moe Gelbart, PhD, Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Recovery Center; Director, Behavioral Health, Torrance Memorial

Alcohol issues among seniors are often misunderstood and under-recognized and can sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis. As we age, we start to suffer from a host of medical and psychological issues related to loneliness and isolation. Alcohol use is often a form of self-medication for these kinds of problems. Unfortunately, rather than helping, relying on alcohol can exacerbate problems confronting seniors and cause new ones specifically related to their alcohol use.

It is important to first understand what “normal” alcohol consumption is. Many people think if they just drink beer or only imbibe fine wine, they do not have a problem. The amount of alcohol in one can of beer, 5 ounces of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor are all the same. The cutoff for problem drinking is 14 drinks per week for men and seven for women, although that number reduces by about half as we age. Approximately 40% of the U.S. population over age 65 consume alcohol, and 17% are considered “heavy” or problem drinkers. As many as 15% of people do not even start to drink alcohol until they are older.

The physical impact of alcohol use is harmful and significant. It negatively affects blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions, certain kinds of cancer and can cause liver problems. The emotional consequences include increased depression, anxiety, confusion, isolation and suicidal ideation. Cognitive decline is hastened, and falls can contribute to serious life-altering and -threatening events. In addition, alcohol reacts negatively with most medications—some very significantly and seriously.

The causes of alcohol misuse in seniors are many. As we age, we suffer a great number of losses, including financial issues and the loss of loved ones, career, health and identity. We often relocate and usually need more assistance in our lives than we did previously.

Some turn to alcohol to assuage grief after the death of a spouse or while suffering loneliness. Retirement from work, which in the past provided us with an identity and financial stability, often brings boredom and fear. When people do not have tools to deal with the emotional pain these changes cause—or do not have social support networks including people to communicate with—they often turn to alcohol as a way to cope with negative thoughts and feelings.

Unfortunately, while there may seem to be a short-term benefit at first, it wears off quickly and swiftly becomes a problem of its own. The signs someone you love may be experiencing alcohol-related problems include solitary, secretive drinking; loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities; drinking in spite of warning labels on prescriptions; change in personality including becoming irritable and hostile; change in grooming, including smell of alcohol and slurred speech. Because seniors have many of these problems as a result of aging and medical conditions, physicians can sometimes miss the extent to which alcohol plays a role.

The good news is it is never too late to get help. At the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center, we treat many seniors for alcohol-related issues. We have seen people in their late 80s and 90s who have made the decision and commitment to get sober. The first step is acceptance of the problem and reducing denial.

Consultation with an experienced physician or psychologist who is an expert in addiction will help lay out the path for improvement. For some, it is education about what normal drinking is, and for others, it may require more professional guidance to achieve abstinence when needed. 

"Most of us come to realize when we found alcohol, it was that alchemy that made us feel comfortable. We felt more comfortable with ourselves, we fit in better and it was easier to socialize with others. I thought I was just relaxing when I drank, but in reality it created self-esteem issues, depression and so many things that I didn’t know were a result of the alcohol at the time. I try to come back to Thelma McMillen every year on my birthday to speak to the group. The reason I do that is because I can so vividly remember that feeling of loss when you first decide to become sober. You’ve got two days at meetings, and somebody stands up and says they have nine years of sobriety. This sounds like an amazing concept at that point in time, and it reminds me of how far I have come from that feeling of being lost. I like to share with people that it can happen for them too. It is amazing when you come out on the other side of alcohol addiction. It really is incredible.” – Margaret

Thelma McMillen Recovery Center is located at 3333 Skypark Drive, Suite 200, in Torrance. Call 310-616-5082 for a free consultation.