Alcohol abuse: How to identify and address the issue

August 15th, 2018

By: Sharon Roth Maguire, MS, RN, GNP-BC, Chief Clinical Quality Officer, BrightStar Care

For many adults, there’s nothing wrong with having a glass of wine at dinner or a beer during the game, but we need to be aware if a senior loved one’s occasional drink turns into a dependency on alcohol.
 
Though a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry showed that people older than 65 are less likely to drink than younger people, the number of older adults who engaged in “high-risk drinking” shot up 65 percent between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. The researchers define “high-risk drinking” as five or more drinks a day for a man and four for a woman.
 
Abusing alcohol is dangerous at any age, but it can bring additional risks for our older loved ones. The first step to helping them is to understand the root cause of their drinking.

Causes and risk factors for alcohol abuse in seniors

There are many reasons a loved one may begin to abuse alcohol. Older adults may drink to numb their emotions due to social isolation, deteriorating health conditions, or the deaths of family members or friends. It may start with just having a drink to help them sleep, but then spill over to other parts of their day to help them try to relax.
 
Aging changes how our bodies process substances, so the same amount of alcohol can have greater effects on a person as they get older. This can make our older loved ones more likely to have alcohol-related accidents, including car accidents or falls.
 
Related reading: 7 ways you can help your loved one after a fall
 
Drinking too much over time also can worsen some health problems, such as osteoporosis, diabetes, liver disease, and high blood pressure. It also can affect cognition and memory loss. If your loved one is being treated for a health condition, it’s important to be aware that some medications can produce serious negative effects when mixed with alcohol.

Signs of alcohol abuse

Seniors’ symptoms of alcohol abuse can easily be mistaken for conditions that are associated with aging, such as memory lapses. But it’s important that we not overlook or dismiss certain warning signs, including:

  • Becoming agitated or irritable when sober
  • Drinking to cope with depression or calm their nerves
  • Frequently having more than one drink a day
  • Isolating themselves and skipping appointments or family gatherings
  • Lack of typical attention to personal hygiene, such as unkempt clothing or hair
  • Lying about how many drinks they’ve had
  • Showing signs of drunkenness, such as slurred speech, stumbling, or smelling of alcohol 

Many people who abuse alcohol are clever about hiding their habit, but by recognizing these red flags, you may be able to spot developing patterns and offer help.

What to do if you suspect a loved one has a drinking problem

It can be tough to bring up concerns about alcohol use, but don’t let feeling awkward stop you from initiating this important conversation. Remain calm and caring, even if your loved one becomes defensive.
 
It also may be beneficial to talk with their doctor or BrightStar Care nurse. If you want to avoid embarrassing your loved one in front of their healthcare professional, you can make a separate appointment or send a private note. Be honest – it’s important that the care team has all the relevant information to effectively care for your loved one.
 
There are many types of treatment available. Your loved one’s doctor may be able to provide advice, and local health department and social services agencies can give you contact information for helpful resources. These could include 12-step programs, individual and group counseling, or more intensive rehabilitation facilities. The support of family and friends is important for people in recovery, so some programs may include family counseling as part of the treatment process.
 
In some cases, identifying situations or feelings that trigger the urge to drink can help in developing healthy coping methods. For example, if loneliness is a primary cause, increasing social interactions may help. If sleep problems are an issue, there are strategies to promote healthy sleep. Identifying underlying factors may be more difficult if your loved one has been abusing alcohol for years or decades.
 
As you support your loved one through this process, remember to take care of yourself, too. Counseling or attending meetings such as Al-Anon or Families Anonymous can help you better understand and cope with your loved one’s struggles with alcohol.
 
Call 866-618-7827 or contact a BrightStar Care® home care agency near you to learn how your loved one might benefit from in-home nurse support services.