My View: The Hidden Epidemic: Alcohol and Older Adults


Shoppers scrambled off the loading ramp as Mrs. Smiths car cruised straight into the front of the store. Bricks crumbled and glass shattered at the neighborhood Safeway in Alexandria where shoppers were stunned to see the driver, an elegant older lady, steering right into them without slowing down. No one but the driver was seriously injured. She was taken to the hospital, where doctors determined she needed extensive orthopedic surgery on her knee and hip.

Mrs. Smith had an elevated blood alcohol level.

While recovering, her local geriatric mental health therapist visited her. Smith, 79, had lost her husband within the year and had been coping with grief. She tearfully related her horror, alarm and confusion about her accident and that she was reported as under the influence of alcohol at the time. She had left a weekly bridge group where she had had a little drink with the girls. She tearfully insisted, Ive never had a drinking problem, I only drink a little socially, just a glass or two!

Her therapist explained that for an older adult, drinking just three alcoholic beverages is the equivalent of a 21-year-old drinking 12. If older adults take medications for blood pressure, diabetes, pain or other chronic conditions, the effects of alcohol are intensified. Alcohol strips the outer coatings of pills and capsules and interacts with insulin. Older adults have less water and higher body fat, which means there is less fluid in the body for the alcohol to mix with, resulting in higher blood alcohol levels.

Mrs. Smith had not known alcohols effects on older people. Sadly, Mrs. Smiths ability to live independently was now lost, due to the severity of her injuries.

Alcohol and prescription medication misuse is one of the fastest-growing health problems facing our country. With the Age Wave upon us its critical to know that almost one in five older adults misuse alcohol and prescription drugs. Alcohol is the most abused substance in the United States and the drug of choice for older adults, resulting in more hospitalizations than heart attacks. Addiction experts estimate 15 percent of adults older than 65 will develop an alcohol problem when they retire or when their partner dies.  Many older adults, like Mrs. Smith, develop drinking problems unknowingly because their bodies do not process the casual drink or two the same as it did as when they were young adults.

The wave of Baby Boomers now approaching age 65, and adults already 65-plus need to raise their awareness of what responsible alcohol use means for them. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends no more than seven alcoholic drinks per week and a maximum of two drinks on special occasions and these guidelines are somewhat lower for women. For Graying Alexandrians the advice of the professionals on successful aging is think positive, exercise your body, stay active in your community, read warning labels, and dont mix alcohol and prescription medications.
The writer is a licensed clinical social worker and therapist supervisor for Alexandrias Older Adult Clinical Services