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Alcohol and the Elderly

Seniors Drinking Mostly Unreported, Undiagnosed, Or Ignored

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Updated July 23, 2006

Although alcohol and substance abuse is statistically at epidemic proportions among the elderly, it remains for the most part unreported, undiagnosed, or ignored.

The reasons that substance abuse by our senior citizens goes undetected are varied, but most have to do with the fact they are no longer active in mainstream society and there is simply no one around to notice.

They are less likely to get in trouble with the law -- stopped for driving under the influence, having a traffic accident, or causing problems in the community. Therefore they have little contact with the police or the criminal justice system. Since many are retired, there is very little chance their drinking will cause them to lose a job or career.

Basically, nobody notices.

    He stops by the club and has only a couple of drinks with his buddies and catches up on the news. But when he goes home he doesn't stop, he drinks more, a lot more. It wasn't always like this. When he was younger he was an occasional "social" drinker, but life changed. He was forced to retire early from his life-long career, and his wife left him. He was lonely, frustrated, and scared. To ease the pain, he turned to the bottle.
Of 86 percent of elderly patients who end up getting treatment for a history of binge drinking, 76 percent began drinking heavily in mid or late life, according to a Canadian study. Women are even more likely to start heavy drinking later in life.

A Growing Problem

Most drinkers who started late are affected by social isolation and physical health problems. Many are affected by grief or loss, and others affected by housing, marital, and mental health problems.

Substance abuse among the elderly is a growing problem for the healthcare industry. Substance abuse-related cases cost more to treat because they require almost 26 percent more hospital staff and other resources than discharges that are unrelated to substance abuse, according to one study.

Because these substance abuse-related cases tend to be more expensive to treat than the average hospital case, the amount actually paid out by Medicare for substance abuse-related care accounted for 23 percent or nearly one-fourth of the total Medicare payments for hospital care, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

    He stumbles while carrying out the trash, falls down the stairs, and breaks an arm. At the Emergency Room the doctor asks about his alcohol use. He says he only has a couple with the boys at Happy Hour every afternoon. He lies about the drinking he does alone because he doesn't want to give it up. It has become a friend to him now, the only friend he can count on to be there.
As the Baby Boomer generation moves toward senior citizen status, carrying with it habits and patterns of behavior developed in the 1960's and 1970's, the situation could develop into a healthcare crisis. Already, more than one-third of people over the age of 65 in North America drinks alcohol and 10% of them abuse alcohol

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