Alcoholism in the elderly


YOU might think that the sweet, old lady who has coped with life's troubles without succumbing to the bottle can safely indulge in gin and tonics at this late stage. In fact, there is a serious hidden problem of late onset alcoholism in lonely women aged 75 and older.

"There is a widespread assumption that alcohol abuse in old age is a rare problem," writes Dr Margo Wrigley, consultant psychiatrist in the psychiatry of old age, in the Irish Doctor. "This arises from denial of the problem by people themselves, probably due to shame or guilt and the fact that it often presents atypically in old age as either a medical or behaviour problem. In addition, elderly people living alone may not have relatives or friends who are involved enough to report the problem."

In a Dublin study, 15 per cent of new referrals to psychiatric services for the elderly had alcohol related problems and among them were two main groups: male survivors of lifelong alcohol abuse and a large number of lonely women who had begun drinking late in life. Families and doctors need to be alert to symptoms typical of the elderly alcoholic, such as self neglect, violent or aggressive behaviour, dementia and a form of chronic psychosis indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia.