The relationship between seniors and alcohol is a primary concern.
Seniors and drinking
Seniors are not a homogenous group. As with any age group, the effects of drinking on older people vary according to age, sex, socioeconomic situation and other demographic factors.
Unlike previous generations, Baby Boomers in Québec grew up in a culture where drinking was very socially acceptable. The proportion of seniors who drink a lot, and perhaps too much, may therefore increase over the coming years.
Twice as many men as women drink too much. When it comes to abusive drinking, for example, in 2018, 12.3% of senior men in Quebec said they had more than five drinks on a single occasion, while only 6.2% of senior women reported having had more than four drinks under the same circumstances.
According to some recent studies, wealthier people drink the most. In Quebec, the percentage of people who drink abusively increases with income: 13.2% among drinkers with the lowest income, and 24.8% among those with the highest income.
Identifying drinking problems
The latest data for Quebec show that 16% of people 65 and older (one in six seniors) have drunk excessively at least once a month during the previous year. One 2012 study says that 0.6% of Canadians over the age of 65 showed signs of alcohol abuse or dependence during the 12 months preceding the survey. Many experts believe that the number of seniors with alcohol-related problems is probably much higher than the research shows. Since we appear to underestimate the number of alcohol-related problems in all age groups, the same is likely to be true for seniors.
Drinking problems are difficult to identify
Seniors often suffer from various ailments that are caused by abusive drinking. Such things as a general decline in health, introversion, memory loss, depression, insomnia, falls, digestive problems, loss of appetite and anxiety are more frequently diagnosed as the result of an illness or simply due the aging process.
Abusive and dangerous drinking
Retirement, changes in family relationships and health issues can all lead to drinking problems in seniors. Such changes are experienced as losses and cause emotional and physical pain.
Some seniors welcome retirement with open arms. However, for people who have never developed hobbies or interests or a network of friends outside of work, retirement entails a host of losses: there’s the loss of a routine, co-workers, something to do, a salary, the sense of being useful, etc. Work is what has given their lives meaning, goals and structure.
Social and family ties
Children leave home, friends and spouses die, social circles become smaller. And seniors often have physical problems that can limit their mobility. All this accentuates the sense of isolation and solitude, which may become intolerable. Unlike younger people, who tend to drink because they are among friends, seniors tend to drink because they are alone.
Losing one’s health can result in stress caused by limited mobility and a diminished sense of self. Some people may use alcohol to dull the pain associated with the loss of their physical capacity.
Other factors help explain why some seniors react to certain situations by drinking more, while others handle the same situations without increasing their alcohol intake. These can include the following:
- drinking more to help handle difficult situations or events;
- the lack of coping mechanisms other than alcohol;
- the lack of a good social network;
- living alone and being isolated;
- having had drinking problems in the past.
Alcohol dependency causes suffering at any age. If we wish to ensure the dignity and well-being of seniors, we would do well to take a preventive approach and watch for potential problems rather than turn a blind eye.
Changes in the body’s fat-to-water ratio and a slower metabolism can produce a higher blood-alcohol level in seniors than among younger people of the same weight who drink the same amount.
Éduc’alcool recommends that people over 65 be attentive to how they respond to alcohol and adjust their drinking accordingly.
Alcohol and medication
Seniors tend to take more medications than younger people, and alcohol and drugs are often a very bad mix. Éduc’alcool recommends that anyone over 65 who receives a prescription check immediately with their physician or pharmacist to see whether alcohol is contra-indicated.
A vigilant community
Seniors are at risk for unintentional dangerous drinking, and drinking problems can masquerade as symptoms often associated with aging. Éduc’alcool recommends that the caring community of people over 65 – family, friends, physicians and health-care professionals – be informed, watchful and quick to take action.