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Loneliness can cause some elders to turn to alcohol

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Many an elder who only drank socially, or with a spouse, finds that a nice glass of wine at the end of the day helps ease loneliness. The once concrete rule that only alcoholics drink alone is rationalized away. When aren't they alone? The death of a long-time spouse leaves a huge hole in an elder's life. Could your elder be filling that hole with alcohol? If so, how much? What can you do to help?

Elders and alcohol is a much larger issue than even many doctors understand. The sweet little gray-haired lady who has her physical may even get away without being asked one question about her alcohol intake. If she is asked, her answer of, "Oh, I'll have an occasional glass of wine with friends," is generally taken at face value. An elderly man may be more likely to be asked a few questions, but again, unless he shows signs of alcohol abuse, he's likely to get by without much scrutiny.

While my focus here isn't on elders and alcoholism - I'll leave that for another article - I would like to state that I'm often asked by e-mail or in forums about what to do when an elder is obviously abusing alcohol. Just because a person is aged, doesn't mean that alcohol couldn't be an issue. Many studies have shown otherwise, but the subject is still often swept under the rug.

For this article, however, I'm focusing on the lonely elder who may turn to alcohol as a way to numb feelings. When a beloved (or not so beloved) spouse dies, the husband or wife left is faced with a huge void. If this couple had an active social life, the remaining spouse may be able to continue on with the same friends. But it's never the same. Even younger people who lose a spouse thorough death or divorce often find themselves at odds with dinner invitations and other events.

After the Funeral Attention Dwindles

Of course, when a couple has a social life and one of them gets ill and dies, there is generally a lot of fussing over the survivor. This attention lasts through the funeral and often awhile after that. However, people have their own lives. Those casseroles made by loving hands arrive less often. The baked goods appear less frequently. And friends who are still married tend to get on with the lives they led before.

I've heard many a bereaved person say they've walked around angrily thinking, "My wife died! Don't you realize that? My wife died! How can you just live your life like nothing happened?" Of course, this is not rational, but it's human. We often feel deserted when others get on with their lives while we still suffer.

Bereavement counseling can help. Hospice offers bereavement help free of charge. Paid counselors can help as well. However, many elders choose to go their own way and eventually, to isolate. Some may find a cocktail or some wine in the evening brings true solace. If nothing else, it numbs the pain. What's wrong with that? Nothing, actually, other than the fact remains that this elder's core issue of emotional pain and isolation is being covered up, rather than addressed.

This person may just continue with the glass of wine and that works for him or her. However, often, one glass becomes two or three. Then, the elder becomes more at risk for falls and nutritional issues. It's easier to pour another glass of wine than to make a decent dinner, especially when a person is all alone.

What Can We Do to Help?

We who bring the casseroles and baked goods can take a few more minutes to visit. We can remember to ask this person to go shopping or to an event with us. And we can scope out the situation. If adult children are in the picture, we can gently mention to the children that we see their parent covering pain with alcohol.

The adult children may then want to start planting the seed for a move to assisted living. It's generally wise to leave the alcohol talk out of it, unless the drinking is excessive. This type of drinking is likely more about loneliness than alcoholism. No one should badger the person about moving, at least not for awhile. Just plant the seed.

If you or the adult children know people in good assisted living centers nearby, try to see if you can wangle an invitation for the bereaved spouse to visit. Expect a negative reply from the isolated person. But try again later. Work on the angle of socializing. People with social support tend to live longer and stay healthier mentally and physically.

See if there's a card group or some other game your elder likes where he or she can join a group at a local assisted living center. Many centers offer Wii bowling tournaments. If the elder can once get pulled into the social circle of a center, then a third party such as a good friend or a faith community leader - even a doctor - may be able to make the final pitch.

Breaking Through the Isolation Can be Hard

Breaking through isolating behavior can be hard, because it tends to feed on itself. Again, unless the alcohol is a huge issue, leave that out of the discussion. Unless medically or otherwise indicated, there's nothing wrong with a glass of wine or a beer. Your elder may enjoy sharing wine or beer with friends at an assisted living center. It's the reason the drinking behavior has started that is the concern. If alcohol is used to cover up loneliness, and you see the amount gradually increase, then it's being abused. The elder needs a better solution. Friends and socialization can provide that remedy.

Once your elder is moved in - celebrate! If wine is appropriate, serve it. If not, well there's nothing wrong with toasting with a nice glass of iced tea.