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Senior Drinking: The 'Invisible Epidemic'

One in six Americans 60 and older is overly dependent on alcohol

TUESDAY, June 25 (HealthDayNews)-- One in six Americans 60 and older is overly dependent on alcohol, and some are "late-onset alcoholics" who never exhibited a problem before.

The consequences can be tragic: By some estimates, alcoholism rivals heart attacks as a killer of senior citizens.

So says a new study by Susan Abrams, a clerk for U.S. District Judge Harold A. Baker of Illinois. Her review of the problem appeared recently in the Elder Law Journal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"We all need to be more aware it is a problem," Abrams says. While the public is well aware of the problems of teen drinking and binge drinking, she says senior drinking problems tend to get much less attention.

Part of the reason, she says, is that few grown children want to question a parent about alcohol abuse.

"It's a dilemma," Abrams says. "We're taught to respect our elders." So if grown children suspect an alcohol problem is affecting their parents, they may just ignore it or talk about it in a "roundabout way," she says.

Adult children may also rationalize that if their parent had a drinking problem, the family doctor would catch it.

That's not the case, Abrams found. "Doctors see patients in controlled circumstances," she says.

She cites a 1998 study that found that only a tiny percentage of primary-care physicians consider alcohol abuse when a patient exhibits some common symptoms.

Why can alcohol become a growing problem -- or a new one -- in life's later years? "I think loneliness has a lot to do with it," Abrams says.

In many cases, adult children live far away and can't visit often, although they may check in with their parents by telephone frequently. Older people who lose friends or their partners may be depressed about their shrinking circle of contacts. They drink for relief, but it can escalate into a health problem.

In her review of the literature, Abrams also found women are more prone than men to "late-life" alcoholism, and are more likely to develop alcohol-related health problems quickly.

If seniors move to a retirement community that would seem to counter the problem of loneliness. Ironically, Abrams notes, the increased social contacts can lead to more drinking because there are more activities -- and more opportunities to consume alcohol.

The solution? Adult children have to be more willing to probe to see if there's a problem. Abrams suggests children begin by talking about abuse problems in their own generation, and then asking, "'Have you seen this in your generation?'"

Another alcoholism expert agrees with Abrams' suggestion to question gently, but the choice of words can make or break the conversation.

"Families get into this big issue of whether Grandma is an alcoholic," says Arthur T. Horvath, a California psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors. "Big mistake."

Horvath suggests loved ones not point a finger at a parent or grandparent but rather say, "'I'm concerned your drinking is causing problems for you.' Then stay in the conversation long enough to bring it to some useful conclusion."

Denial is common, even with the gentle approach, Horvath adds. However, family members must decide what to do if a drinking problem is uncovered. If the children live far from their parents, they might ask a neighbor to check in on their parents to assure their well-being, Horvath says.

If an older person is persuaded to get help, Abrams says family members should remember that withdrawal from alcohol is a psychological as well as a physical process, and to be sure there's plenty of psychological support.

What To Do

For more information on alcohol and aging, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism or this site.

SOURCES: Susan Abrams, law clerk, U.S. District Judge Harold A. Baker, Central Illinois; Arthur T. Horvath, Ph.D., psychologist, La Jolla, Calif.; May 2002 Elder Law Journal
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