sealPurdue News

December 1997

Expert: Alcohol problems often overlooked in the elderly

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.--Alcohol's effect on the elderly, and society's lack of understanding about alcoholism in general, often makes it easy to ignore drinking problems in that age group, says a Purdue University nursing expert who studies the subject.

"Elderly alcoholics are more common than people realize or want to believe," says Peg Krach (pronounced "crock"), associate professor of nursing, who studies problems associated with old age. "It's a serious problem that's being ignored because often there's the attitude of 'I'm not going to confront Grandpa about it.'"

Adding to the dilemma is that many of the symptoms of alcoholism are problems typically attributed to old age, such as insomnia, poor concentration and depression, Krach says.

Often, the caregiver in a family, who is typically an older daughter, believes it's hopeless to try to change the alcoholic behavior, Krach says. But pointing out the health problems caused by too much drinking can be a powerful motivator for an elderly alcoholic to change, she says.

"Older people especially are concerned about losing their mental faculties," says Krach, who tells of an 89-year-old woman who had a drinking problem for nearly 60 years. The woman finally quit drinking when she realized she was unsafe to baby-sit for her great-grandchildren and decided she didn't want to be remembered as an old drunk.

Krach says elderly people start abusing alcohol as a way to cope with various losses such as a spouse, health, a job or financial security. Alcoholism in the elderly is particularly serious, she says, because many of them are on several medications, which, when combined with alcohol, can be deadly. For example, because alcohol is a depressant, it can make someone being treated for depression even more depressed.

How do you know if a person's drinking is really alcoholism? "Anytime drinking alcohol affects your health, then alcohol is a problem," Krach says.

While warning signs that Grandpa Henry or Aunt Lucille is a problem drinker are more subtle than in a younger drinker, you can learn to spot them, Krach says. Some signs:

If you suspect that an older family member has a drinking problem, gently confront the person without judgment and choose your words carefully, Krach suggests.

"Confrontations should be less aggressive with an older drinker," she says. "You need to show that you accept them as someone with needs. Also, this age group grew up in a time when alcohol was considered a sin or a social stigma. So it's best to refer to it as a drinking problem rather than alcoholism."

It's also important to make a list of all the prescription drugs the person is on and take it to a doctor, who can monitor overall medicine needs and be aware of the drinking problem, Krach says.

Family members who suspect that an elderly relative is a problem drinker need to educate themselves on both the aging process and alcoholism, Krach says. Sources of information include libraries, mental health associations and the family doctor.

Krach also recommends encouraging the elderly drinker to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings of people their own age who have drinking problems. "And Al-Anon is a good source of information to help caregivers learn how to cope with a family member who has a drinking problem," she says.

Source: Peg Krach, (765) 494-4026; e-mail,
Writer: Susan Gaidos, (765) 494-2081; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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