If you remember the television show “The Walton’s,” you probably remember a couple of senior adults on the program called the Baldwin Sisters. They were known for sharing “Papa’s recipe” with their friends and neighbors. It was one of the few shows that even acknowledged that senior adults, who have been using alcohol for their adult lives, continue to use alcohol in their “golden years.” The purpose of today’s article is to take a look at some of the issues surrounding senior adults using alcohol.

Perhaps the most important thing to focus on is that alcohol is a drug, and like most other drugs it has both positive and negative side effects. Alcohol acts as a depressant on the body’s nervous system. Many people find that drinking some alcohol helps them to relax. There has been some research that shows red wine can be good for your heart. However, alcohol can also have some negative effects, especially as people grow older. One of the reasons for this is because as people age, they are more likely to be taking either over-the-counter (OTC) or prescriptions medications. In either case, there may be harmful drug interactions. This is why is very important to let your primary care physician know all the medications you are taking, even herbal ones, as well as your use of alcoholic beverages. If your physician says you would not be at risk for drug interactions when using alcohol, the National Institutes of Health recommends that senior adults limit themselves to no more than 7 alcoholic drinks in a week and not more than 3 in any one day. The reason for this is that as we age, we become more sensitive to alcohol. The good news is that if you are not taking any medications which do not mix with alcohol you can continue to enjoy your favorite beverages.

For some individuals, however, alcohol use started becoming a problem well before their senior years. Becoming a senior adult does not lessen an alcohol problem. There are actually two different levels of alcohol problems, which sometimes get confused with each other- alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence (alcoholism). Each one has distinctive features, which are described below:

Alcohol Abuse
1. A failure to fulfill work or social responsibilities due to drinking alcohol
2. Drinking alcohol in dangerous situations, such as driving
3. Having repeated legal problems, such as “driving under the influence,” (DUI)
4. Having increasing problems maintaining relationships with other people due to alcohol use

Alcohol Dependence (Alcoholism)
1. Experiencing cravings for alcohol/ needing to have a drink
2. Loss of control when drinking/ not being to stop drinking after starting
3. Physical dependence/ having withdrawal symptoms when stopping alcohol intake
4. Tolerance/ needing to drink more alcohol to get the same effect

The question now becomes, “What do you do if you recognize yourself or someone you know with one of these alcohol problems?” The first step is recognizing that there is a problem. The next step is getting help for it. If you recognize yourself as having an alcohol problem, you may want to start by discussing it with your physician or with your health insurance company. (Many insurances policies cover Behavioral Health problems, which include alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, but some of them require you to use in-network providers.) If you are a veteran, the VA also has help available. A third option is join a mutual help group, such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). But the important thing is to seek out help! If you are a friend or family member of someone with an alcohol problem, you need to learn how to help without becoming an “enabler.” An enabler is a person whose actions to keep the person with the alcohol problem out of trouble, actually helps to perpetuate the problem. An organization such as Al-Anon can help with this. Another way you can help yourself or a friend/family member with an alcohol problem is to be open and honest about it if you or the family member/friend are admitted to a hospital. A person with alcoholism is at risk to suffer DT’s, Delirium Tremens, after several days without alcohol. By informing the medical staff of alcohol problems they can be prepared to provide appropriate medical treatment. It is important to get help for alcohol problems because failure to do so can lead to liver problems, such as cirrhosis, or Alcohol Related Dementia, caused by neurological damage from long-term excessive drinking.

In conclusion, there is a wide continuum when it comes to senior adults and alcohol. Many are able to continue to enjoy their favorite beverages in moderation, while others should rarely, if ever, consume alcoholic beverages. The key is to become informed and then make responsible decisions.

Written by John Reese, Elder Care Coordinator