That’s Men: Older people need to be vigilant about turning to alcohol

The older and allegedly wiser shake their heads at the sight of young people falling about on the street from the effects of too much drink.

From The Irish Times

Yet it is entirely possible that there is more dangerous drinking going on in the homes of the old than in the haunts of the young.

I was struck by a recent finding that alcohol-related deaths are falling in the UK – except among older people. In 2012, there was a slight fall in deaths related to drinking across all age groups. But deaths among men aged 75 and older were up by 18 per cent and among women by 12 per cent.

Moreover, the highest rates of alcohol use as measured by drinking for five or more days of the week are found among people aged 65 and over, according to Age UK, as reported in The Guardian .

In Ireland, “there is evidence that alcohol misuse is increasing in people over the age of 65”, says the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland.

Why? It isn’t just a matter of problem drinkers getting old as you might expect. That’s part of it but “emotional, social, medical and practical problems can lead to late-onset alcoholism”.

That means this could happen to any of us. Old age can bring its share of depression, regrets, fear of the future, loneliness, pain and poverty. That’s not all it brings, of course, and not to everybody. Nonetheless, certain aspects of getting older – retirement or the death of a spouse for instance – bring emotional upheaval to the door of many who were never really prepared for it.

Ever-ready companion

And all the stuff and nonsense about people starting second careers or going off to climb Mount Everest when they’re 70 may increase the sense of isolation of those hit by waves of loss or pain. And in that isolation, alcohol can be an ever-ready companion.

Worse, the problem may go unspotted by doctors because of similarities between alcoholism symptoms and other conditions. A possible drink problem is unlikely to be the first thing on the mind of a GP who has known a patient for many years without any previous issue with alcohol.

I did not know older people were more susceptible to the effects of alcohol due to the body’s decreasing ability to break it down. As a result, “alcohol circulates in an older person’s body for a longer time and the effects of drinking last longer”, according to the Alcohol Action Ireland website.

“This in turn can leave older people vulnerable to a host of risks including falls, accidents, poor nutrition, health problems and financial difficulties.”

Negative side

It’s easy enough to see how a few drinks could bring comfort to a person facing the negative side of ageing. And it’s easy to see how the first drink could occur earlier and earlier in the day if you don’t have to show up for work in the morning.

These, I imagine, are the ways in which alcohol use could become a real problem for some older people. It’s also a very big challenge to have to deal with an alcohol problem in old age if you never had to deal with it before, especially if you’re feeling lonely or anxious.

I can’t quite see what the answer to all of this is. I can’t guarantee I will never join the ranks of those who turn to excessive drinking in old age – some of those who have done so I suspect never imagined they would.

At the very least these findings suggest that older people need to be vigilant about leaning on alcohol as an emotional support. And health policy-makers need to be aware of the growing importance of this phenomenon as the population ages.

The stereotype suggests older people are somehow “settled” compared with younger people. Like many stereotypes this one is misleading and dangerously so.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email .