Alcohol and the Older Adult
Michelle Howard, RN
Alcohol has quite the history and not all of it is filled with kittens and puppy dog tails. In the 1920s, Congress submitted the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, for state ratification. Many citizens hated alcohol due to car accidents, addiction, using too much wheat, a decrease in efficient workers and the problems that it caused in many home lives. Bootlegging is what everyone turned to. Communities found a way to indulge in liquor even with it being illegal. Thirteen years later in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which amended the Volstead Act and allowed the manufacturing and sale of alcohol beer and wine.
Alcohol has been around for many years and will continue to be part of the community. Having alcohol in your home can be a good thing according to research. Drinking alcohol in moderation could have a positive impact on your heart, reduce your risk of stroke or reduce your chance of becoming diabetic. Those of you who are running out to start your alcohol purchase to get healthy, let me define what moderate drinking means. If you’re a healthy adult, moderate alcohol use means one drink a day for females all ages (not under 21) and men older than 65. For men under the age of 65, two drinks a day is considered moderate. If your drink of choice is a beer, then 12 ounces is all you get; if wine is your beverage of choice, five ounces is tops and if you go straight to the hard stuff, then 1.5 ounces is it. If you are looking for ways to stay or get healthy, then exercise and eating healthy is the way to go. A body in motion stays in motion.
Now that we have talked about some history and some positive influences it can have, let’s discuss some negative effects. Addiction to alcohol can affect your family, social life, school, destroy your finances or, even worse, take your life or an innocent bystander. I’m pretty positive everyone that is reading this can name someone they know that drinks alcohol on a daily basis or is a recovering alcoholic.
The health effects can be life threatening even more so for older adults. Several different syndromes that involve impairment of brain function can occur in alcoholic patients such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, an acute state of confusion, alcohol-related dementia, cirrhosis of the liver, gastrointestinal disease and bleeding. Cancers of the head, neck and esophagus are associated with chronic alcohol abuse and increased risk of stroke. This is just a few of the diseases that can be caused from alcohol abuse.
Older adults with drinking problems are at increased risk of falling, missing medications and overdosing. Many over-the-counter and prescription medications can be extremely dangerous when taken with alcohol. Drinking alcohol and taking aspirin can greatly increase your chance of bleeding in the stomach and intestines; ingesting acetaminophen with alcohol can increase your risk of liver damage; taking cold and allergy medicine with alcohol can greatly increase drowsiness; sleeping pills with alcohol can increase your chance of falling or sleepwalking. Watching your loved one suffer from alcohol addiction is painful and it can leave you feeling completely helpless. Every situation is different but help is there if you need it. If you’re not positive that your loved one has an addiction here are some signs: changes in sleeping patters, changes in eating habits, poor personal hygiene, being secretive, lying often, mood swings, major changes in energy level, weight changes, memory loss, sadness, depression or irritability, increased isolation from family and friends.
When deciding to talk to your loved one, a good starting place is looking at their medications. Are they taking any benzodiazepine or opioids? These have addicting side effects and if not taken exactly as prescribed can be harmful for the older adult. Going with your loved one to the doctor to discuss safer medications could have an overall positive outcome. Are they remembering to take their medications? Are they in the same place or all over the house? Some adults with memory impairment can forget that they took their medication and double dose. Medications should be prefilled in medication boxes or some pharmacies put all daily medications in a bubble pack.
Sitting down with your loved one to discuss accompanying them to the doctor or their alcohol consumption could go well or could not go so well. Talking with your loved one can be very emotional; this can make speaking with them difficult. Having a specialist to talk with your loved one could be very helpful.
Michelle Howard, R.N. is a Care Manager at the Placerville Office of Elder Options. Michelle has a passion for helping older adults and is well versed in dementia care, client assessments, and community resources. www.elderoptionsca.com.