We are really worried about our aunt. She lived alone for about three years after her husband died. Now she's moved into a retirement community. Aunt Jill was never a drinker. She might have a glass of wine on special family occasions. Now we're worried that she may be drinking and doing it too much. She seems confused when we visit. She's getting very thin, and her skin and eyes just don't look right. Is it possible she's become an alcoholic?
It's certainly possible that your aunt is abusing alcohol whether or not she's an alcoholic. According to an article just published in the University of Illinois Elder Law Journal, as many as one in six Americans 60 and older are over-dependent on alcohol.
The article says that a growing type of abuser is the "late-onset alcoholic." Such a person shows no sign of alcoholism until major physical or lifestyle changes, such as health problems, death of a spouse, financial worries trigger overdrinking.
Moving to a retirement community may actually increase the drinking problem because the social activities provide more opportunities to drink.
The older alcohol abuser, as well as family and friends, often confuse the signals of alcoholism with signs of aging or senility. Be alert to physical and mental changes.
The good news is that if an alcohol problem is recognized and treated, older people have the highest level of success. Thirty percent of AA members are over 50.
As to your aunt, discovering whether she has a problem with drinking and then helping her deal with it is a sensitive issue. Each person is different. An obvious place to start is making sure she's having an annual physical. Even then it may be overlooked. The Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has characterized substance abuse as "under-estimated, under-identified, under-diagnosed and under-treated" among the elderly.
Take an increased interest in your aunt. Many older adults with drinking problems are significantly isolated from the social support offered by friends and family. If she does have a drinking problem, treatment may include individual living and/or group psychotherapy in conjunction with developing social supports (including self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous).
There is an excellent free guide to mental health issues for older Kansans that might be helpful to you. "A Mental Health Guide for Older Kansans and Their Families," is available from the Area Agency on Aging that serves your area. The guide may also be ordered from the Kansas Development on Aging by calling (800) 432-3535. Several pages in the guide deal with substance abuse.
Your aunt is lucky that you are interested in her. Keep up those important contacts.
If you have a question or comment for "Sense for Seniors," write to Betty Gibb, Kansas Senior Press Service, 11875 S. Sunset, Suite 200, Olathe 66061. Or call 913-477-8103, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.