Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- April 2004
There are many things that can trigger excessive drinking as we age. It is estimated that two-thirds of older drinkers begin their habit earlier in life, and the remainder begin later, in response to stressful life experiences.
Typical definitions of alcoholism do not apply well to older adults. For instance, there is likely more "hazardous" drinking going on, which is brought about by not realizing that alcohol has stronger side effects on older adults and that mixing certain medications with alcohol can be much more of a problem for older adults than younger people.
The signs of excessive use of alcohol are harder to pick up in older adults. Older adults often drink at home alone. Many older adults are retired so they don't experience work-related problems due to their alcohol abuse. They drive less, so they are less likely to get into trouble for driving under the influence. Many older adults are reluctant to discuss personal issues or seek professional help for what they consider to be "private" matters.
I think that the most significant obstacle to properly addressing older adult alcohol abuse is "ageism" -- we unconsciously assign different quality-of-life standards to older adults. Such outlooks are reflected in remarks like "Dad's cocktails are the only thing that make him happy" or, "What difference does it make, he won't be around for much longer anyway." Ageism lulls all of us into to reacting with less urgency to older adult problems than we would to the same problem in younger adults. You can see this type of attitude everywhere, even in so-called older adult advocacy organizations like AARP. I did a search at www.aarp.org for "alcoholism." I found only four references and none of them were about the subject of alcoholism.
Alcoholism is just as big a problem in older adults as it is in younger populations. The misuse of alcohol takes a huge toll on older adults. Studies show that alcohol likely accelerates normal decline in physiological functioning and increases risks for injury, illness and socioeconomic decline.
There are many short assessment tests related to alcohol intake. One of them is called the "CAGE" test. The C stands for "Are you interested in cutting down on drinking"? The A stands for "Is anyone annoyed because of your drinking?" The G stands "Is there any guilt associated with your drinking?" And, the E stands for "Do you use an eye-opener drink in the morning?" A "yes" answer to two or more of these questions may signal a problem.
The short answer to your question is that your father's potentially damaging drinking problem is your business and an "intervention" may be the best you can offer in your situation. An intervention consists of family and friends making a plan on how to use love and honesty to help break through your dad's denial. I recommend doing some reading about the intervention process at LoveFirst.net.
Older problem drinkers have a very good chance for recovery because once they decide to seek help, they usually stay with treatment programs. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.
Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement
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RON STERLING, M.D.
General Psychiatry with Specialization in Adult Attention Deficit Disorder
Updated October 7, 2007
Copyright 2000-2007. Ron Sterling, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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