According to Inebriated Elders, a just-published article in the University of Illinois Elder Law Journal, as many as one in six Americans 60 and older are overdependent on alcohol. Twenty percent of the elderly who are admitted to psychiatric wards show symptoms of alcoholism or substance abuse. By some estimates, alcoholism today rivals heart attacks as a killer of senior citizens.
A growing type of abuser is the late-onset alcoholic, according to author Susan Abrams, a UI law graduate who is the clerk for U.S. District Judge Harld A. Baker in Central Illinois. Such a person shows no sign of alcoholism until major physical or lifestyle changes, such as health problems, death of a spouse, financial worries, depression or sleeplessness, trigger overdrinking after age 50.
Women are more prone than men to late-onset alcoholism, Abrams reported, and women also develop alcohol-related health problems more quickly. Equally serious is the problem of elderly women who often suffer from shame and embarrassment, and their families often fail to help because of denial or desperation. Moving an alcoholic to a retirement community may actually increase the problem because the social activities provide more opportunities to drink.
Prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse also increase with advancing age. While some seniors turn to alcohol, others turn to antidepressant medications. Fifty percent of all sedatives are used by people over the age of 59. One out of six Medicare recipients is prescribed medication inappropriately, according to a survey of elderly women.
One of the most serious aspects of the invisible epidemic, wrote Abrams, is the inability (or unwillingness) of doctors and hospitals to diagnose the problem. The Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Contact: Mark Reutter
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign