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Alcoholism among older people may be overlooked

As people age, they may tend to mix alcohol with prescription drugs. Disaster can ensue.

Research suggests alcoholism among the elderly may not be diagnosed or is simply overlooked.

Todd Wagner, clinical director at Blue Mountain Counseling in Dayton, said alcoholism among seniors is a growing problem, often going unnoticed. Maybe providers aren’t asking seniors about alcohol and drug use and abuse.

“It may be out of respect, you don’t want to offend them. We were raised to respect our elders,” he said.

Wagner, in addition to being a substance abuse counselor, is a geriatric mental health specialist and has plenty of serious concerns about elders and alcohol. First, he said, is the high suicide rate among those over 65.

The elderly face a host of potentially life-changing events. Health issues are a source of stress. Another huge event is retiring from work, a total change of structuring time and patterns of socializing. Adding alcohol to issues related to aging simply increases the risks.

According to Wagner, the first year after retirement is when a person is most at risk.

“When you retire, your life has completely changed,” he said. “There’s financial changes, time and schedule changes, they may have health problems also. That first year is a year to be scared of.”

“They may be dealing with new health problems that come with age,” he said. If you add alcohol to the picture, the risks increase.

Another factor is the interaction of multiple medications, with each other and with alcohol. “So few elders know about the effects of their medications to begin with,” he says. According to Wagner, there are a surprising number of seniors who drive after taking medications.

“The medications say on the label not to operate heavy machinery. They don’t think of a car in that category,” Wagner said. “Then they get stopped, and admit to the officer what they took and are surprised when they get popped for a DUI.”

At the Center at the Park, formerly the Walla Walla Senior Center, executive director Mike Johnson said that alcoholism is a “cross-cultural issue. It doesn’t discriminate by age, religion, gender, color or anything. It’s symptomatic to our culture. In America, it’s the No. 1 drug of choice.”

People of all ages who have problems with alcohol may find their way to medical facilities, eventually.

At Walla Walla General Hospital, Stan Ledington, DRPH said, “We see people who use large amounts of alcohol and then end up with health problems. Or they’ve fallen and been injured.” According to Ledington, it goes back to alcohol and medications. “Most people don’t understand the interaction of even a small amount of alcohol and the medications they’re taking,” he says. “Alcohol changes the way the medications work on their bodies.”

At Serenity Point Counseling, Pat Flores, program manager said he doesn’t see many seniors who have a drinking problem. “In our population it’s about five percent …” of the population, he said.

“With older adults,” he added, “you have the attitude that they’ve lived a long life, earned their keep and can do what they want.

“Now we have the baby boomer generation that’s getting up there, and we expect to see an explosion. Here in Walla Walla we haven’t seen it yet.”

Flores said he thinks the predicted increase in seniors who have alcohol problems will have a huge impact on everything, especially health care.

“With the older generation,” he said, “they’ve learned how to function and avoid trouble. They tend to be closet drinkers, at home so they don’t have a lot of repercussions like going out drinking and driving.” So it is difficult to estimate the extent of the problem because much of it exists behind closed doors.

However, Mary Cleveland, local program coordinator at the Walla Walla office of Aging and Long Term Care, ALTC, says the issue of seniors and alcohol abuse is getting more attention. Cleveland says it could be expanded to seniors and substance abuse in general, rather than merely alcohol. “The patterns are not different for seniors than anyone else. Some seniors have been drinking all their lives. What you see in the older people are more health issues, liver disease, increased falls and malnutrition. As the body ages, you just don’t metabolize alcohol as well.” It’s not just alcohol, Cleveland said, adding, “We see a lot of prescription drug abuse.”

She said that seniors deserve the same care and treatment as a younger person. Not providing the same concern for an older person is a mistake, she added.

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source:  Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

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