Caring Currents

Alcohol Abuse Among Seniors -- the Last Taboo Subject

Last updated: Apr 01, 2008

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Are you concerned that one of your parents is drinking too much?

It's a topic that doesn't come up as often at barbecues as whether Mom's memory is fading or whether it's still safe for Dad to drive. But bring it up -- which I do, as it's become an issue in my family -- and the stories come pouring out.

One friend says she's been secretly worrying whether her mother's over-fondness for red wine might have contributed to a fall she took last month, but she can't bring herself to discuss it with her siblings. Another says he's been concerned about late night phone calls from his dad, in which his father sounds more emotional than usual -- could he be lonely and drinking too much since Mom died?

If you're worried, you're not alone. Even experts in aging were caught off guard by research published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society in which Elizabeth Merrick of Brandeis University found that almost one in ten seniors on Medicare reported drinking more than the amount recommended by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). And how much is that? Of the 12,413 seniors surveyed, 9 percent reported drinking more than the 30 drinks a month -- or more than four in any given day -- surpassing the NIAAA's recommended limits.

This amount is lower than the limit the NIAAA recommends for adults under 65, because seniors are more sensitive to alcohol and less able to metabolize it. Also, alcohol can interact with medications and exacerbate other health conditions, particularly any that affect liver function. And of course, drinking too much can lead to falls and can contribute to depression and other conditions that already plague seniors in high numbers.

Concern about increasing alcohol abuse among seniors led senior members of AA to form a new group, Seniors in Sobriety, with meetings springing up all over the country, and a campaign to bring the issue into the open among families.

Image by Flickr user Shawn Henning used under the Creative Commons attribution license.