I recently stopped in at the CVS in Rossmoor and found myself in line behind an elderly gentleman buying two 175-mililiter bottles of Popov vodka (on sale for $9.99 each) and an elderly woman buying a 1.5 liter bottle of Merlot (on sale for $5.99), along with thank you cards and milk. This is not at uncommon sight when I occasionally stop in at one of Rossmoor’s pharmacies: an elderly person, presumably a resident at the senior community, stocking up on alcohol, usually a discount brand in large bottles.
My Rossmoor friend Gilbert Doubet agrees that what I observed is noted amongst residents themselves:
“Your comment about booze consumers at the local discount drugstores is a commonly exchanged observation in Rossmoor. In the local RiteAid/CVS checkout lines, there’s often a person ahead of me with half a shopping basket full of jumbo size whiskey bottles.”
He explains the sad reasons behind his neighbors’ use–or misuse–of alcohol:
“Some self-medicate due to loneliness,” he writes. They’ve outlived their friends. Oddly, older people have difficulty making new ones, abandonment (by their uninterested or faraway adult children), chronic pain, boredom, an inexplicable disinterest in volunteerism, and a generational prejudice against more benign alternatives like marijuana. Many mix alcohol with meds, then drive around under the influence of both. A surprising proportion drive without licenses.”
Doubet says though that “Rossmoor drinking is not as bad as it was 15 years ago when I moved here as a juvenile delinquent.”
Google “alcohol abuse and elderly” and you’ll come up with a number of articles about what is described as a “hidden” or “unreported epidemic.” In this article from the famed Hazeldon addiction treatment center in Minnesota, you can read about a woman in her late 70s who was a teetotoler most of her life, enjoying only an infrequent sip of wine on special occasions. “But after her children moved away and her husband and many of her close friends died, Eva turned to the bottle for escape and compansionship.”
The article continues:
Recent census data estimates that nearly 35 million people in the United States are 65 years or older. Substance abuse among those 60 years and older (including misuse of prescription drugs) currently affects about 17 percent of this population. By 2020, the number of older adults with substance abuse problems is expected to double.
As demographics change, attitudes about and use of alcohol and drugs change as well. “In January 2006, the leading edge of the baby-boom generation (those born during the population swell of 1946-1964) will turn 60,” said Frederic Blow, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan and a Huss Research Chair on Older Adults and Alcohol/Drug Problems at Hazelden’s Butler Center for Research. “These individuals have had more exposure to alcohol and illegal drugs, and there is more acceptance among them about using substances to ‘cure’ things. We expect to see an increase in drug and alcohol use; and more use means more problems.”
There are, of course, health risks associated with alcohol abuse among the elderly. Some older people may not be aware that recommended limits are lower than for younger people. Older adults are more sensitive to alcohol and less able to metabolize it, both of which contribute to adverse effects at any level of drinking. Alcohol can exacerbate some medical problems, reduce a person’s ability to function, increase confusion the risk of falls, and negatively interact with medication.
Fortunately, there is growing awareness among the medical community about this issue, and less stigma and shame associated with it. So, if you’re an older person and you believe you are imbibing too much, or if you have an older friend and relative about whom you are concerned, there is plenty of information out there about strategies to help.
The Hazeldon article says there is “good evidence” that older adults do as well as young people when it comes to treating substance abuse and that they may even do somewhat better. “Older adults can recognize all kinds of benefit from treatment,” stressed Blow, the University of Michigan psychiatrist. “There are often direct health benefits, improved cognition, more independent living, more and better social connectedness, and new hobbies. The benefits are enormous.”