By Gerald W. Deas, M.D. in Frost Illustrated.
Mrs. B, a 72-year-old widow who lives alone, was found unconscious at 3 p.m. in her apartment. She was lying face down in vomit beside her bed and was breathing heavily, but responded to painful stimuli. On her nightstand were several types of medications, including blood pressure pills, diabetic medication and capsules for sleep. There was also an open empty half-pint bottle of vodka and a quart of warm orange juice.
Mrs. B was not known as an alcoholic to her friends and family. Alcoholism, however, among the elderly is a growing but little discussed social and medical problem. It has been reported in medical literature that 10 to 15 percent of person over age 65 have a drinking problem. Many seniors begin drinking because of depression resulting from loneliness. Many elderly patients sit in there apartments seemingly waiting for the end of what had once been a very full and active life. Their only comfort is to sit and sip an alcoholic beverage while looking at depressing stories on TV.
Senior citizens often have many coexisting medical conditions. Alcohol and the medications they take for these conditions do not mix well. Hypertension, diabetes and heart disease all require medication that can become toxic if consumed with alcohol. Alcoholism also causes vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can lead to neurological deficits and chronic brain syndromes. Due to the depletion of vitamin B1 (thiamine), magnesium and other nutrients, the alcoholic person can experience blackouts, amnesia, confusion and seizures.
Alcoholism in the elderly must be treated vigorously with adequate nutrients and, oftentimes, medication. The adverse social conditions leading to this problem must be addressed by social service agencies, religious groups and concerned relatives. The organization Alcoholics Anonymous can be contacted. Afflicted senior citizens must be encouraged to go to recreational centers for interaction with others in their peer group. If they cannot get to the center for want of transportation, retired neighbors and church members should form voluntary transportation services.
Mrs. B was admitted to a hospital because her blood chemistries reflected poor kidney and liver function as a result of alcohol consumption. With adequate medical care and alcohol detoxification, Mrs. B responded. The social service department arranged for Mrs. B to attend AA meetings in her senior housing development and arrangements were made with a neighbor to check in her every so often. Now she is doing well and gaining new interests in her life.