Baby boomers keep changing American culture. Current shifts in alcohol use show boomers are more likely to drink alcohol than previous generations and many need treatment to cut back on problem drinking. Because it is legal and more socially acceptable, alcohol is the most common substance used by older adults, although many seniors also combine drinking with medications, opening themselves up to greater complications.
Because substance use among seniors was less common in the past, research into the best ways to treat alcohol problems among seniors is limited. As with all groups, the best addiction treatment is individualized to a single person, taking into account his culture, family history, need for safe housing and healthy social interactions. Research shows many people benefit from therapies like Motivational Interviewing (MI), which pairs a patient with a therapist who asks him questions about how substances affect his life, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which shows patients the link between thoughts and actions and offers ways to build healthy habits that overcome substance use.
Identifying Alcohol Problems
Alcohol problems in older adults look different, mainly due to the physical factors of aging. Older adults may hide their excessive drinking or they may experience more severe problems because of the way bodies change as people age.
National surveys show a significant number of seniors report heavy drinking or binge drinking. Heavy drinking includes people who drink five or more drinks a day for five or more days in a month; binge drinking is five or more drinks a day for at least one day in a month. At least 2.1 percent of people age 65 and older report heavy drinking and 9.1 percent report binge drinking. The numbers are higher for younger seniors, 4.7 percent of 60- to 64-year olds are heavy drinkers, while 14.1 percent binge drink. The number of seniors who drink excessively is expected to go up as baby boomers age. By 2030, 72.1 million adults will be over age 65 – nearly double the number of seniors in 2008.1
Alcohol use has a disproportionately bigger impact on older adults than younger adults. As people age, the body’s volume of retained water and lean body mass progressively declines. Fat storage also increases, resulting in elevated blood-alcohol levels that impact the mental and physical functions of an older adult more significantly than younger adults who drink the same amount.3
Past statistics show heavy consumption begins to decline after age 65. Health problems or medications might limit the use of alcohol. Other factors such as limited disposable income and larger ratios of females to males within the elderly population (women, on average, drink less men) may explain the difference. Additionally, the life expectancy of a person with alcoholism is shorter, and chronic drinkers may not live past age 65.
Warning Signs of Excessive Drinking
Elderly patients who are retired and/or have limited social interactions need special attention when considering the warning signs of alcoholism: isolation from friends or family, and lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities.
- Depression or anxiety
- High blood pressure (especially if unresponsive to medications)
- Confusion, memory loss, confabulations
- Frequent falls/lack of strength
- Shakes or twitches
- Difficulty with motor or muscle control (including incontinence)
- Gastritis – painful burning sensations in the stomach (sometimes accompanied by belching, bloating, nausea, vomiting, or bleeding)
Even small amounts of alcohol may affect a person differently as he ages. Women also are more likely than men to begin drinking at an older age, often as a way to handle the death of a spouse or other significant life change.
Early-Onset vs. Late-Onset
Approximately two-thirds of older alcoholics began alcohol use much earlier in life. Early-onset alcoholics are more likely to have a family history of alcoholism and display increased antisocial behavior (aggression and hostility towards others). For these older adults, social and economic ties are weak and family relationships are troubled. Alcoholics in this group who live to an older age are at risk of developing conditions related to alcohol toxicity and old age.3
The additional one-third of elder alcoholics began alcohol use later in life, sometimes as a result of transitional events such as children leaving the family home, retirement, or bereavement. Education and income is higher among this group, as is family support and involvement. Interestingly, residents of retirement communities with rich social lives use alcohol and drink more heavily than those who are less social.3
Treatment for Older Adults
Denial is a hallmark of alcoholism at any age. Shame, stigma and apprehension may hold some seniors back from seeking help.
At The Canyon, treatment progresses when people are ready. There also are options to include medications in the therapy. Short-lived benzodiazepines use may manage alcohol-withdrawal symptoms; vitamin supplements such as thiamine aid in recovery from malnutrition and electrolyte enhancements restore hydration, muscle and nerve function. Plus, meditation, yoga, equine therapies, group and individual counseling sessions are available to reduce patient cravings for alcohol.
Whether you’ve abused alcohol for several months, several years or almost a lifetime, The Canyon at Peace Park offers targeted therapies that teach patients to live the rest of their lives sober.
Barry, K. L., & Blow, F. C. (2016). Drinking Over the Lifespan: Focus on Older Adults. Alcohol Research : Current Reviews. Retrieved Jan. 23, 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4872606/.
 Kuerbis, Alexis and Sacco, Paul. (2013). A Review of Existing Treatments for Substance Abuse Among the Elderly and Recommendations for Future Directions. Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment. Retrieved Jan. 23, 2017 from http://search.proquest.com/openview/eb9d5e96a7bd2289ce75cce8e778e33d/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1086353.
 Trevisan, Louis A. (2014). Elderly Alcohol Use Disorders: Epidemiology, Screening, and Assessment Issues. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved Jan. 23, 2017 from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/alcohol-abuse/elderly-alcohol-use-disorders-epidemiology-screening-and-assessment-issues.