A new study on the drinking behaviors of assisted living residents suggests that more than a third of people living in these types of facilities drink alcohol daily, with about 12 percent drinking to a point that constitutes alcohol abuse. According to the New York Times, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh interviewed more than 800 assisted living aides about the behaviors of the elderly people they cared for. The results suggest a problem that may have gone unnoticed by public health workers.
Nearly 70 percent of older adults in assisted living centers drink alcohol, researchers found. About 20 percent drank to the point that alcohol had an influence on their health, and some even drank enough to cause “physical or psychosocial harm.”
The New York Times reported that alcohol misuse or abuse has not been shown to increase with age, but one elder care expert believes the trend of drinking into old age tends to be dismissed by healthcare professionals. According to Carol Bradley Bursack, editor-in-chief of the site ElderCareLink.com, many doctors simply don’t believe elderly people drink often.
“The sweet little gray-haired lady who has her physical may even get away without being asked one question about her alcohol intake,” Bursack wrote in a recent piece on the website. “If she is asked, her answer of, ‘Oh, I’ll have an occasional glass of wine with friends,’ is generally taken at face value.”
Bursack believes that many older adults turn to alcohol because it eases loneliness. The elderly are far more likely to lose a spouse or suffer other losses that leave a void in their lives.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Whatever the reason for high drinking habits, the trend poses some health issues for assisted living residents. The New York Times pointed out that alcohol consumption has much more serious consequences for people in their 80s as their tolerance for alcohol decreases and puts them in danger of falling into depression and developing conditions like high blood pressure.
People who take multiple medications and show signs of cognitive decline are also more adversely affected by alcohol.
“With their changing metabolism and the possible interactions with prescription drugs, they may not need to drink a lot to have problems with alcohol,” said study leader Dr. Nicholas Castle.
But taking alcohol entirely away from residents isn’t the purpose of the study, Castle said. Instead, he and his team just want to make sure the condition is recognized by the health community.
“We want to at least put this on the radar screen,” he said. “This exists. Maybe there should be more awareness. Maybe there should be therapies and treatment.”
But with policies on alcohol varied across different living facilities, it may be up to families to begin a conversation on their loved one’s drinking habits.
The New York Times explained that aides were consulted instead of residents during the survey because the university team did not have the financial research to train interviewers. There was also some concern that residents would underestimate their alcohol consumption either due to denial or genuine lack of knowledge.
The study was published in the journal Research on Aging.