Alcohol abuse can cause problems for elderly drinkers


Q. I was around my elderly father during the holidays, and I noticed an increase in his drinking. When I mentioned it, he said to mind my own business. How can I tell if he is drinking too much?

A. You have a right to be concerned. The fact that your father becomes defensive about his drinking could indicate that there is a problem.

When you are around your father, notice if he has any of the characteristics of someone who abuses alcohol; some of these are:

• Being excessively crabby or short-tempered

• Having more difficulty than usual with his memory

• Frequent mood swings

• Recent falls, bruises, or burns

• Poor hygiene

• Skipping meals or not eating

• Avoiding family and friends

Excessive drinking can cause serious problems in the elderly if they mix alcohol with many medications for sleep, depression, or anxiety. These medications have to be prescribed carefully for older people since they can cause dizziness. Additionally, the elderly can become confused and take too much medication. When compounded with the effects of alcohol, the likelihood of an elderly person falling or having an accident is greatly increased.

Perhaps the most dangerous mixtures are narcotic pain medications and alcohol. It is important that your physician or pharmacist warn your father about the dangers of drinking and using these drugs. He will likely listen to a professional resource much more than he will listen to you.

Go with your father to his next doctor’s appointment to discuss the impact of his alcohol use. He may be angry, but you may also save his life.

Q. I am 67 and nearing retirement. I have increased my drinking recently. I now have two or three drinks each night. Could I be developing an alcohol abuse problem?

A. Have you tried to stop or cut back on your drinking? If not, that should be your first step. Have you asked yourself why you suddenly need more alcohol? Are you anxious or depressed? Is your job problematic? Before you do anything else, you need to answer these questions honestly.

Since you are older, alcohol can have a more adverse effect on you. The Short Michigan Alcohol Screen Test – Geriatric Version (S-MAST-G) listed below was created as a self-assessment tool for older people to determine if they have a drinking problem.

1. When at a party, do you ever underestimate how much you actually drink?

2. After a few drinks, have you sometimes not eaten or been able to skip a meal?

3. Does having a few drinks help decrease your shakiness or tremors?

4. Does alcohol sometimes make it hard for you to remember parts of the day or night?

5. Do you usually take a drink to relax or calm your nerves?

6. Do you drink to take your mind off your problems?

7. Have you ever increased your drinking after experiencing a loss in your life?

8. Has a doctor ever said they were concerned about your drinking?

9. Have you made rules to manage your alcohol intake?

10. When you feel lonely, does having a drink help?

Score 1 point for each “YES, and zero for each “NO.” If you score 2 or more, it is an indication that you need to discuss your drinking with your physician and perhaps a mental health professional.

If your doctor agrees that you can continue to drink, the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment recommends no more than one standard drink per day and no more than two standard drinks on special occasions such as weddings. However, if you feel you need treatment, you can discuss your alcohol problem confidentially by calling 1-800-662-HELP a 24-hour hotline or by visiting the website www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov. Also, remember that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has meetings that you may find helpful.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to drnryburn@gmail.com. They will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.