Is There Treatment for Elderly Alcoholism?

A senior citizen holding the hand of a younger person. The text "Addiction in the Elderly" is superimposed on the image.

In 2014, $225 billion of alcohol sales sold out in the U.S. The drinking group who made these sales possible comprises of the youngsters below 18 years old, and between 10 and 15 percent seniors in the county. Many people raise awareness for prevention programs for underage drinking, but who’s ready to discuss elderly alcoholism? Nearly 250,000 alcohol-related emergency room discharges are being observed annually. As the population of seniors increases this decade, so will the number of seniors’ alcoholism cases.

Signs Of Elderly Alcoholism

The signs of alcoholism  come off differently for most seniors. However, unlike teens’ or young adults’ excessive drinking, it is easier to spot a senior addicted to alcohol. As we get older, our alcohol tolerance level reduces – the signs are, therefore, more pronounced in seniors than in young people. Again, the effects of alcohol on the body and mind of seniors can affect other areas of their lives. This, too, makes the signs more pronounced.
Nevertheless, addiction still comes in different forms for different individuals. Some seniors will get drunk and still function well in public– while others will have their social life completely damaged. The signs of alcoholism are physical and mental. They can even be social or spiritual.

Some common signs of alcoholism include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Social isolation
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Making excuses for the drinking habit
  • Depression
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney trouble
  • Smelling of alcohol or strange body odor

Untreated Long-Term Alcoholism Risks:

Most seniors have a string of health issues that keep them on medication throughout the remaining part of their lives. Alcohol can have a negative effect on many medications, illnesses, and health concerns. If alcoholism goes on for many years, without treatment, the damages can become permanent. Heavy drinking can exacerbate most of these health issues, as discussed below.

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Physical, Mental, Emotional Effects of Alcohol

Memory Loss: When drinking, an older person might lose their memory or blackout for a short while. With age, we get more sensitive to alcohol, and our tolerance levels drop significantly. While it may have taken you hours to feel the effects of alcohol, you start “blacking-out” only after a few drinks.
Mood Disorders: Depression and bipolar disorder are common and can be further triggered by heavy drinking for an extended period. However, a doctor has to determine if a senior suffered from a mood disorder before or after addiction before treatment commences. We often associate conditions like a dual diagnosis with mature adults or “at-risk” youth, but anyone, even elders, can experience co-occurring disorders with addiction.
Osteoporosis: Seniors’ bones become weak, and the joints are more vulnerable to injury and inflammation. Abusing alcohol and other substances can worsen these conditions by affecting the calcium levels in the body. Alcohol also interacts with hormones in the human body, messing up normal metabolic functions needed to sustain health.  Hormones such as estrogen in women and testosterone in men are responsible for maintaining healthy bones by producing bone-supporting cells.

Risk Of Mixing Alcohol And Medications

Alcohol interacts with many prescription and over-the-counter medications. The interaction can be dangerous and might lead to death in some instances. Elderly alcoholism shows a significant struggle between meds and booze. Some of the medications that interact dangerously with alcohol include:
Aspirin – Interactions can cause liver damage and internal bleeding.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) – Combined with alcohol, this might result in liver and kidney problems over a long period of time.
Cold and Allergy Medication – Most of these medicines contain acetaminophen, which makes an addict drowsy more than the alcohol does.
Cough Syrup – Scientifically known as dextromethorphan, cough syrup causes drowsiness and difficulties in concentrating when mixed with alcohol. Codeine can depress the respiratory system, resulting in shallow breathing, delayed heart rate, or even death.
Sleeping Pills – Alcohol alone makes a person feel drowsy. Taking alcohol while on sleeping pills might confuse, impaired motor skills, diarrhea, and other exacerbated effects of alcohol.
Anxiety or Depression Medication – These medications make you more sensitive to alcohol, and interactions with them can result in liver damage.

Opioid Addiction in Elderly: The Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic has left no group unaffected, including older people.

Opioids include natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic substances like the illicit drug heroin and prescription pain medicines. Prescription opioids have been a significant driver of the opioid epidemic as a whole.

Opioid addiction in the elderly has been a growing problem for years. It can be especially dangerous since older people are at a higher risk of overdose and other types of accidental death.

From 1999 through 2019, almost 500,000 people died because of an overdose in the U.S. Drug overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999. From 2018 to 2019, opioid-involved death rates went up by more than 6%.

Prescription Painkillers

Prescription opioids, including hydrocodone and oxycodone, affect the user’s brain and body in many of the same ways as heroin. There is a slowdown in central nervous system (CNS) functionality. This reduces vital functions controlled by the CNS, like breathing and heart rate, contributing to the potential for an overdose.

While prescription opioids are high-risk for overdose and addiction, they are often given to patients to manage chronic pain. Chronic pain is a significant source of opioid addiction in the elderly. As we age, we’re more prone to the  conditions that can lead to chronic pain, including musculoskeletal disorders  and arthritic conditions. Around  80% of people with advanced cancer  deal with severe pain, like 77% of patients with heart disease — Up to 40% of outpatients who are 65 and older report experiencing pain.

Between 1995 and 2010, the prescribing of opioids for older adults during regular doctor’s office visits increased 9x. The proportion of older people in the U.S. using heroin more than doubled between 2013 and 2015.

Of course, coping with chronic pain through prescription opioids is only one contributing factor to addiction in the elderly. Other factors include loneliness and isolation and having multiple doctors who might inadvertently prescribe medicines that interact with one another.

What Type Of Medical Care Can Be Helpful to Elderly Alcoholics?

Alcoholics may need medication at two stages during recovery: detoxification and management of withdrawal symptoms. During detoxification, medicine aims at getting rid of all alcohol in the system for the alcoholic to start on a clean slate. However, quitting alcohol comes accompanied by a horde of withdrawal symptoms such as severe headache, confusion, and insomnia, among others. These symptoms need medication to manage.

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Is It Still Worth It To Help Seniors With Addictions?

So many complications arise with elderly alcoholism. When health conditions exacerbate, the happiness of seniors is at stake, and so is the happiness of primary caregivers. There are so many reasons why seniors need help tackling alcoholism! And it’s definitely still worth it to help treat our elders in society. They are people too, and they still need medical help.
Seniors need help overcoming alcohol addiction because:

  • Reduced alcohol tolerance in elders which makes the effects of drinking more pronounced. Unlike the youth, elders experience great impairment from alcohol use, including memory loss, coordination problems, and increased risks of falls and accidents.
  • Alcohol worsens medical conditions in seniors and can even cause new conditions. Some of the conditions aggravated by alcohol intake in seniors include diabetes, malnutrition, osteoporosis, and many more, according to West Virginia University, School of Public Health.
  • Seniors should not mix alcohol and medication as the interactions between the two can lead to fatal side effects.

Unlike the young, seniors have additional risk factors that can lead them to alcohol and substance abuse. They might feel isolated after the death of a spouse, feel stressed due to medical conditions, feel lonely, and they still have to handle the stress of moving into a senior living home. With the above factors, it is worth to help seniors tackle their drinking problem. The above factors are also the reason some senior living facilities find it not worthy to serve drinks at all.

Is There Treatment For Elderly Alcoholism?

Anyone suffering from alcohol addiction can get treatment. Most elderly homes monitor alcoholic behavior and offer therapy to elderly alcoholics.  Treating elderly alcoholism starts with identifying the problem . The individual or the doctor has to realize that the problem exists – afterward, the senior needs to accept there is a problem and commit to the type of treatment the doctor recommends.
No matter the stage of addiction, seniors need to realize that alcohol addiction, just like any other addiction, is an illness. Guided withdrawal from a doctor is recommended for seniors to avoid potentially fatal side effects of quitting suddenly. If you quit alcohol overnight, you might experience symptoms such as anxiety, raised blood pressure, insomnia, seizures, tremors, stomach issues, sweating, and severe confusion. As such, you need to wean off the drinking by gradually reducing the number of drinks you take every day.

Treatment Types

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
In A.A. meetings, you share your story with other recovering alcoholics and listen to stories of other alcoholics. You will also meet sponsors or mentors who are also recovering alcoholics and who help you tackle your emotions, fears, and temptations.
In server cases, rehab is ideal to help seniors stay off alcohol. During recovery, the senior goes through detoxification, management of withdrawal symptoms, individual and group therapy sessions, and one-on-one counseling. Both inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities can tailor treatment to suit your lifestyle.
Most seniors in assisted living homes go through therapy to manage to find the underlying causes of addiction and stop the addiction. A qualified therapist in the living facility takes the alcoholic through therapy.

If you’re looking for a treatment center that will help manage the medication and habits of a loved one, call Opus Health for a free consultation with a care coordinator.

We’ll treat your family like family.

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