SEBRING— John, an 81-year-old who didn’t give his real name, has not had a drink in 20 years.
His journey to abstinence started when he realized he had a drinking problem and needed to do something about it.
His alcohol dependency had become so bad, he said, he needed a drink just to quieten his nerves. After guzzling a few, his hands became “as steady as a brain surgeon’s” he remembered, until six or seven hours later, when the quivering restarted, and he had to go reach out for the bottle again.
Attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings was an important part of his rehabilitation process. He still attends AA meetings, not because he is afraid he’ll drink again, he said, but to help somebody else wrestling with something he once struggled with.
John, who recently moved back home, may have won his battle against the bottle but many seniors in Florida report chronic drinking, making it the sixth highest nationwide, a nationwide study reports.
In Florida, 187,000 seniors 65 years and older report chronic drinking, states United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings Senior Report, which evaluates senior health across states and 34 health parameters.
Overall, Florida ranked 28th, dropping one point from last year.
High points for Florida seniors, the report says, are low prevalence of physical inactivity, high use of hospice care and low prevalence of falls.
The high rate of chronic drinking is one of the things to watch, the report states, along with poor pain management among seniors, high use of the intensive care unit and limited availability of home health care workers.
Perhaps because it is a retirement state and has the highest percentage of those 65 and over nationwide, Florida is at the bottom of the heap for the rate of seniors with multiple chronic conditions.
“Florida’s senior population is expected to grow by 87.9 percent between 2015 and 2030,”cautions Erin George, a spokesperson for the foundation.“That’s why improving the health of our seniors is both a moral and an economic imperative.”
Two local counselors are only too aware of substance abuse among the elderly, both of alcohol and prescription drugs.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the American Geriatrics Society says that seniors are engaging in risky drinking if they consume more than seven alcoholic drinks a week or more than three drinks on a single day. They recommend no more than two drinks for men and one drink for women on a single occasion.
“Substance abuse presents at any age,” said psychologist Susan Crum. “Regardless of age, many people see drinking as a means of coping with grief, anxiety, depression, pain or loneliness.”
Since Highlands County ranks third in the state for the percentage of seniors, and 33 percent of our population is over age 65, it is not “surprising we also have a high percentage of seniors who abuse alcohol,” she added.
Part of the reason is loneliness, said Crum and social worker/therapist James Crawford.
Many seniors retire in Florida, leaving family and friends behind, Crawford said. People also tend to see alcohol as acceptable, he said.
As we age, Crum added, we lose more family members and friends, and become depressed and anxious about being alone or in pain.
“An area such as Highlands County may be at higher risk for senior alcoholism because we don’t offer a public transportation system and most people reside in private residences as opposed to apartments,” Crum said.
That means if seniors have difficulty driving, many “end up being socially isolated and bored, with loneliness and boredom contributing to the habit of drinking,” Crum said.
According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, the number of people age 50 and over needing substance abuse treatment is expected to double to 5.7 million by 2020.
Substance abuse treatment admissions of those in that age group increased by almost 50 percent between 2005 and 2009, they add.
The National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependance Inc. sees alcohol and prescription drug problems among those 60 and older people as one of the fastest growing health problems facing the country.
“Yet, the situation remains underestimated, under-identified, under-diagnosed, and under-treated,” it states.
Health care providers tend to overlook alcohol or drug problems among older people, mistaking the symptoms for dementia, depression, or other problems common to older adults, the center adds.
Older adults also are more likely to hide their alcohol or drug use and less likely to seek professional help. Many relatives of older people with substance use disorders, particularly their adult children, “are living in denial or ashamed of the problem and choose not to address it,” the center adds.
Crum has found locally that because of transportation and financial limitations few seniors seek help for alcoholism.
“In fact, they often don’t wish to admit to themselves that it is a problem,” she said. “But, alcohol abuse can cause changes in sleep and appetite, increased incidents of falling, irritability or agitation, and confusion.”
It is often these symptoms – not the alcohol abuse per se – which will prompt a family member to suggest that the senior, consult with a physician, she said.
“But, even then the alcoholism may be missed because the senior doesn’t report it as a problem,” she said.
As we age we metabolize alcohol more slowly.
So while seniors may be used to drinking a certain number of drinks a day, the same amount of alcohol now produces a higher blood-alcohol concentration and greater intoxication or impairment than if they were younger, she said.
“In fact, as few as two drinks can slow reaction times in older drinkers,” she added.
Crawford said alcoholism is a “disease with all age groups,” although he sees his share of seniors referred to Tri County Human Services Inc. where he works.
His advice to seniors is not to be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
“People out there care,” he said.