Alcohol Is Elderly’s 3rd Leading Cause of Death
Alcohol is recognized as a deadly force when combined with driving, but specialists say it is also the silent killer of an often “ignored” sector of American society.
Death among the elderly is often attributed to “old age,” but statistics show alcoholism is the third leading cause of death in that age group, a spokeswoman for the Visiting Nurses Service in Indianapolis said.
The National Council on Alcoholism estimates that more than 20% of the nation’s more than 2 million senior citizens--61 and older--are alcoholics.
A large number of senior citizens turn to alcohol late in life as an escape from problems associated with growing old.
“There are tremendous levels of psychosocial stress among the elderly,” said Jane Meier, nursing director at Fairbanks Hospital in Indianapolis.
The elderly are more prone to “physical problems, lower mobility, loss of friends, a sense of isolation and a feeling of uselessness,” she said. “Our identity is tied up in what we can do.”
“It’s something that has been ignored,” said Prof. Roger P. Maickel of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette.
“The media and the science field have spent most of their time addressing other issues,” he added. “People may just shrug it off.”
They say “it’s just another elderly person reaching the end of his life,” Maickel said.
An Invisible Problem
“Society has never really addressed the problem--not because it’s not there, it’s just not visible,” he added. “It just doesn’t have the newsworthiness of a 17-year-old teen-ager hitting another car at 70 m.p.h.”
Marcene Blakey-Royster, coordinator of social services at the Visiting Nurses Services, said alcoholism among the elderly often goes ignored because it becomes manifested in the physical condition.
Symptoms such as “falling and breaking of the hip,” confusion, forgetfulness, changes in behavior, and failing health among the elderly are often passed off as senility or as the “natural aging process,” Blakey-Royster said.
But she said these signs might in fact be indications that an elderly person is dependent on alcohol.
Among other reasons the elderly alcoholic often goes untreated is that he is not perceived as a threat to society.
The societal roles that force others to seek treatment are missing among the elderly. Senior citizens are usually “allowed” to continue their habit, said Anne Pinnick, executive director of the Greater Indianapolis Council on Alcoholism.
Many of the elderly are not pressured to seek treatment because they do not drive, do not work and no longer have family responsibilities. Also, family members and physicians often ignore the obvious symptoms.