Too much to drink

Too much to drink? It's no laughing matter.

My old mum, Elsie, was a real Cockney character. When I married Ellen, she turned up her nose at the wedding ring given to me by my new wife. "You'll be wearing bloody earrings next," she sniffed. Elsie took to drinking at the age of 70, a few years before she passed on. Unfortunately she didn't quite know how to go about it and knocked back Cointreau by the tumbler as if it were lemonade.

It became a family joke, of course. The more outrageous she became, the more we laughed. We thought Elsie was entitled to whoop it up a bit in her twilight years. However, the sad truth is that alcohol affects people differently as they grow older and we didn't realise she couldn't handle what it was doing to her.

Our bodies change with the passing years. We are made up of less water and more fat. The alcohol is processed differently and has a far greater effect on the liver, kidneys and other organs. To put it bluntly, we now get drunk quicker even though we may be consuming less booze. We've all heard people say: "I just can't take it like I used to."

There is danger here for the elderly. Instead of cutting down, or stopping altogether, many start abusing alcohol - like Elsie - and drinking more than is good for them. The reasons aren't hard to find. The death of a spouse or other family loss, fear of dying, loneliness, changes in health and retirement are common causes.

Health authorities have now identified a marked trend towards alcoholism in older patients. Surveys indicate some 10 per cent of elderly people admitted to hospital exhibit symptoms of the disease. The figures are higher in psychiatric wards and problem drinking is causing much concern in nursing homes. There's a heavy price to pay. Premature death, fractures through falls, depression, insomnia and poor nutrition are some of the consequences of excessive drinking.

What makes the trend particularly disturbing is that most of today's old folk grew up free of alcohol problems. Drunkenness and rowdy behaviour were taboo in the 20s and beyond. On the whole, our generation avoided drink and drugs.

If there is a drink problem in the family, remember alcoholism is a disease and can be treated. Your GP will usually refer patients to help organisations. It is a mistake to believe older persons have little to gain from treatment. Sobriety brings its own rewards, whatever the age or background of the person concerned.

Instead of laughing at the antics of my mother Elsie, we should have realised she must have been deeply unhappy to have turned to drink so late in life. With hindsight, it is clear she was frightened and perhaps aware of the cancer that later took her life.

There's a lesson to be learned here. If someone near and dear to you suddenly begins hitting the bottle - GET HELP.

Copyright© 2000 Derek Jameson / Retirement Matters Ltd. All rights reserved.