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Alcohol and Older Adults

Many seniors are drinking more, but alcohol use comes with unique risks as you age. Even if you’re drinking to cope with the challenges of aging, there are ways to cut back.

Elderly man adding alcohol to his mug of tea

Aging and alcohol use

As you age, you might find yourself indulging more in your favorite wine, beer, or liquor. Maybe you’ve grown fonder of the taste over time. Or maybe your social group as a whole has begun to incorporate more drinking into your regular get-togethers.

On the other hand, some older people turn to alcohol for the purpose of self-medicating. A new phase of life can come with all sorts of new challenges and obstacles, such as reduced finances, a dwindling social life, and declining physical abilities. And when those changes feel overwhelming, alcohol can seem like a convenient way to cope.

While you’re not alone—research shows that alcohol use is rising among older adults—trying to drink away your problems only creates a dangerous spiral. Even if your drinking habit doesn’t progress into alcoholism, you might notice physical, mental, and social consequences to your actions, which in turn causes you to drink more to relieve the stress.

With age comes wisdom, but even older adults can be caught off guard by a drinking problem. However, you can always take steps to adopt a healthier relationship with alcohol. The first step is to learn about common reasons for drinking, signs of excessive drinking, and the unique risks alcohol poses to older adults.

Common reasons older adults drink

Instead of addressing the root causes of negative emotions, some people use alcohol to find relief from their problems. This can be a tempting route to take, especially in the face of new challenges that emerge later in life. Some of those challenges might include:

Boredom or lack of purpose. Many of us look forward to retirement. But if you don’t have activities or interests to replace work, it can be a stressful time where you might feel bored or directionless. A loss of identity, status, or purpose can even contribute to feelings of depression.

Reduced income. Retirement or a reduced ability to work can affect your income, and financial instability often increases stress. Drinking may seem like a way to ease your tension, but ultimately it just further worsens both your mood and financial situation.

Failing health. Aging comes with an increased risk of serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, or hearing loss. Health issues might lead you to despair or even ruminate on your own mortality. Drinking may seem like a way to escape from these difficult feelings.

Loneliness. Many of us as we get older start to struggle with social isolation and loneliness. This could be due to anything from living alone to retirement to limited physical mobility. Drinking can be a way to pass the time you spend alone.

Recent bereavements. The loss of old friends and family members can spark intense feelings of grief. It’s not uncommon for people to try to “drown their sorrows.”

Over time, drinking can make it more difficult for you to overcome any of these aging challenges. You might find that alcohol use further limits an already-tight budget, deepens your sense of grief, or accelerates a physical or mental health condition.

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Dangers of drinking too much as you age

Maybe you’ve fallen for the common misconception that the older you are, the better you can handle alcohol. In actuality, as you grow older, your body has a harder time metabolizing alcohol, increasing your sensitivity to it. You also likely have less muscle mass than you did when you were younger, so the effects of alcohol can come on faster.

Older drinkers are more at risk of:

Injuries from alcohol-related accidents. If your balance, sight, or reflexes are not what they were, accidents such as falls and vehicle collisions may be more likely to occur. In addition, reduced muscle mass and bone density increase the odds of severe injury.

Health complications. Alcohol can exacerbate conditions that are common in older individuals, such as high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, liver problems, ulcers, or impaired memory.

Adverse drug interactions. As we age, we often rely on prescription or over-the-counter medication to manage health conditions, whether it’s sleeping pills or pain medication or medication for depression or other mood disorders. Some of these medications can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol.

Older adults who drink in excess also face many of the same risks as younger drinkers, including:

  • Reduced sleep quality.
  • Increased anxiety.
  • Worsened depression.
  • Weight gain.
  • New development of chronic conditions like cancer, heart disease, or liver disease.
  • Social problems, including damaged relationships with family and friends.

Signs that you’re drinking more than is healthy

A 2021 survey suggests that more than half of Americans over the age of 50 enjoyed alcohol at least once in the past year. Because drinking is such a common activity, it’s not always easy to tell when moderate alcohol use progresses into alcohol misuse or abuse. Here are signs that you may be drinking in excess.

You have more drinks than you intended. You might plan to have a single drink with dinner, but you keep telling yourself, “One more won’t hurt.” Later, you find yourself looking at a collection of empty bottles on the table.

You experience cravings. You might find yourself wanting a drink even at inappropriate times. When you can’t reach for a drink, you might feel unfocused or irritated.

You blackout while drinking. A blackout is when you drink so much that you experience memory loss or fragmented memories. It can leave you feeling worried about your health or nervous about the things you said or did while drinking.

You feel ashamed of your drinking. After drinking too much, you might feel guilty about your lack of self-control. You might also regret things that you said or did while intoxicated.

Drinking worsens your mental health. You might have a few drinks in hopes of forgetting your troubles. However, later you notice that drinking has increased your sense of hopelessness and anxiety.

[Read: Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse]

Drinking affects your relationships. Even if your physical or mental wellness isn’t noticeably affected, your drinking might be a point of contention between you and your loved ones. Perhaps your adult children worry about your health, or your partner dislikes the way you behave after a few drinks.

If any of these signs sound familiar, you might feel a sense of despair. Perhaps you fear that this pattern of behavior will degrade the quality of your physical and mental health as well as your social life. Rest assured that there are steps you can take to regain control, deal with challenges in healthier ways, and get the most out of life as you age.

Self-help tip 1: Find ways to reduce your drinking

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), men should aim to limit alcohol consumption to two drinks or less a day, while women should aim for one drink or less. If that seems like a tough goal, remember that cutting back on just one drink a day could improve your brain health.

Start by making these small changes:

Set hard limits. You might want to limit yourself to a certain number of drinks per sitting. Write your goal down somewhere as a reminder. If necessary, record how much you’re consuming, so you can better track your drinking habit. Let those around you know about your limits as well. They’re not responsible for your behavior, but they can offer gentle reminders or avoid encouraging you to drink more.

Choose dry days. If you have a habit of drinking every day, this might be a good way to reduce your alcohol usage. Come up with a list of activities that will keep your mind off of drinking during the days you decide to abstain. Go for an evening walk with a friend, for example, have a movie night with family members, or spend time tending to your garden.

Slow down. When you have a drink in front of you, take small sips and appreciate the taste. This can help reduce the amount you end up drinking by the end of the night. It might also help to drink water between sips of alcohol. Drinking water won’t prevent a hangover, but it might help fill your stomach and discourage you from chugging your beer. Taking bites of food between sips can have similar benefits.

Make it harder to find alcohol. Although it’s convenient and often cheaper than going to a bar, avoid storing alcohol in your home. If you have beer in the fridge or wine in the dining room, it’s too easy to reach for a drink at the end of a stressful day.

Try alcohol-free alternatives. If you love the taste of beer or wine, try nonalcoholic products. The alcohol-free alternatives can be especially useful when you’ve hit your set alcohol limit for the day but still have cravings. You might have to experiment with a few products before you find the nonalcoholic drink that you find most satisfying.

Addressing alcohol addiction

Should you aim to cut back on drinking or quit altogether? It’s a personal choice, but if you have an alcohol addiction, dropping the habit is the healthiest option. But it’s not always easy. Alcoholics can experience severe withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, nausea, and elevated heart rate, if they suddenly stop drinking.

Some people are able to overcome alcohol addiction on their own, but treatment options such as residential facilities and individual or group therapy can also be helpful. Learn more in our guide to Overcoming Alcohol Addiction.

Tip 2: Recognize triggers to your drinking

Triggers are familiar circumstances that guide you to take a specific action. Triggers don’t force you to engage in a behavior, but they can subconsciously provoke a behavioral response — in this case, reaching for an alcoholic drink.

Some common triggers for drinking might include locations, such as being seated in a restaurant or bar. Specific times, such as weekends or evenings, might serve as a cue that it’s time to drink. Maybe you instinctively reach for a beer when you come home from running errands. Or perhaps you feel compelled to drink anytime you’re near a certain friend who also enjoys alcohol.

Triggers aren’t limited to external factors. You might feel an urge to drink whenever you experience negative emotional states, including anxiety, frustration, or sadness.

Take note of your unique triggers. What circumstances lead to your cravings? Write them all down if necessary. This list can help you take some preventative steps. For example, you might choose to cut down on trips to a restaurant that serves alcohol. If being around a certain friend triggers your cravings, you can suggest outings that don’t involve drinking.

If you can’t avoid a certain trigger — weekends by yourself, for example — you can take several approaches:

  • Focus on the reasons why you want to avoid drinking. Try to recall how awful a hangover feels or imagine the long-term consequences of alcohol abuse.
  • Find a distraction. Think of activities that can take the place of drinking. This could include anything from going for a leisurely stroll outdoors to running errands. If you distract yourself long enough, the craving will pass.
  • Reach out. Consider calling a friend, family member, or another trusted person for support. They might be able to either distract you from the urges or remind you of why drinking isn’t the answer.

Tip 3: Find social support

Loneliness is a common hurdle many of us face as we age, and it can go hand-in-hand with depression and excessive drinking. Maybe you’ve lost touch with a valuable circle of work friends after retirement. Or perhaps lifelong friends have passed away or moved. If you’re living in a rural area or dealing with limited physical mobility, you might also struggle with isolation which can lead you to spend too much time alone, drinking and ruminating.

Strengthening or building a social support network is a great way to overcome the loneliness that can trigger alcohol use. Here are some tips:

Start by reaching out to acquaintances — people you regularly run into but aren’t friends with yet. This could be someone you see at a local café or library. Invite them to a simple outing, like a walk in the park, so you can get to know each other better.

Volunteer. Look for local volunteer opportunities that interest you. Help with a clothing drive or mentoring program. This is not only a good way to make friends but can add a sense of purpose and satisfaction to your days.

Engage with local groups and events. Join a yoga or tai chi group, go to a museum when a new exhibit is unveiled, or look for activities at adult day care centers. Open yourself up to new experiences, and you’re bound to meet new, interesting people. Just try to avoid groups or events that might entice you to drink.

[Read: Making Good Friends]

Staying in touch via technology

If distance or limitations with mobility mean you’re unable to regularly meet with loved ones, embrace technology. Email and text messages are useful for sharing daily life updates and photos. Or you can schedule video calls so you can hear and see friends and family members. You can also reconnect with old friends via social media and then schedule online get-togethers.

You can also get creative with long-distance communication. Rather than just chat, consider hosting a digital book club or game night with friends over a video call. If you’ve never used video conferencing or social media before, it may seem a little uncomfortable at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of it.

Tip 4: Look for healthier ways to cope with stress

Despite the fleeting euphoric sensation that comes with a buzz, drinking alcohol won’t help you cope with the stressful challenges that often come with aging. However, there are healthier ways to manage stress and boost your emotional resilience.

[Read: Self-Medicating Depression, Anxiety, and Stress]

Stay as active as possible. Regular exercise is important to physical and mental health as you age. Exercise releases endorphins and promotes feelings of well-being. The next time you feel a craving — or if you’re feeling one now — get up and go for a short walk and see if the urge to drink subsides. Even if you’re experiencing limited mobility, you can still find activities that match your abilities. Working out with a friend or neighbor is also a great way to make exercise a social activity.

Experiment with relaxation techniques. Practices such as mindfulness meditation, visualization, and deep breathing exercises can help to combat stress without turning to alcohol. Exercises that involve rhythmic movement, such as swimming or running, and activities that involve deep breathing, such as yoga, can also be helpful.

Follow a healthy diet. Your diet is another factor that can affect your physical health as well as your mood and energy levels. Try to eat nutritious, well-balanced meals.

Get enough sleep. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep at night can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Changes in your body’s hormones can lead to difficulty sleeping as you age. However, identifying and addressing other underlying causes of insomnia can help to improve your sleep quality.

Tip 5: Add new meaning to your life

Events like retirement or bereavement can make you question your purpose in life. You might feel that your sense of identity was tied to your job or your sense of meaning stemmed from your relationship with your late spouse. Or perhaps a diagnosis of dementia, cancer, or a similar condition has robbed of your sense of independence. It’s easy to turn to alcohol to fill that void in your life. But here are a few ways to renew your sense of meaning in more fulfilling ways:

Volunteer. Think of ways to serve your local community or support causes that you’re passionate about. Help with a food drive, participate in clinical studies, or work with your church to set up a summer program for kids, for example.

Mentor younger people. You’ve likely amassed years of skills and experience during your life and career that can be passed to benefit the younger generation. Reach out to youth groups, community centers, local colleges, or volunteer groups to find mentorship opportunities in your area.

Write your memoirs. Or a how-to book about something you’re knowledgeable about. If you have grandkids, you could compile a family history or photo albums to pass down to them. Or start a blog about your life and experiences.

Learn new skills. Don’t fall for the belief that you’re too old to learn something new. Take dance lessons, experiment with a musical instrument, or enroll in a community college course. This is also a great way to expand your social circle.

Dive further into your hobbies and interests. Love cooking? Start to compile your recipes into a book. Enjoy spending time in nature? Join a bird-watching or hiking group. By focusing more on the interests that add meaning and joy to your life, you’ll begin to feel more fulfilled and less reliant on alcohol. If new limitations prevent you from pursuing your old hobbies, try taking up something new.

Add a furry companion to your life. If you’re an active person, a dog can make a loyal friend and can accompany you on daily walks. Cats are better if you have more limited mobility. In either case, taking care of an animal can make you feel needed, add a new sense of purpose, and benefit many different aspects of your life.

How to help an older adult who’s drinking too much

Watching an aging parent or other loved one struggle with a drinking habit can be a painful experience. You might feel frustrated by their alcohol abuse or distressed about the potential long-term consequences. Although you can’t control their behavior or make decisions for them, you can broach the subject and advocate for change.

Educate yourself on alcohol addiction if necessary. Addiction isn’t as straightforward as it may seem, and there are many misconceptions. Take the time to learn about alcoholism and alcohol abuse, including common signs, effects, and myths.

[Read: Helping Someone with a Drinking Problem]

Let them know about your concerns. Don’t lecture or threaten your loved one. Just let them know how their actions seem to be affecting their health or your relationship. Don’t be judgmental, but let them know you care. If other family members have also noticed the drinking problem, you can set up a family meeting to broach the subject.

Expect denials. An aging parent might push back on the idea that they have a drinking problem. They might say that they know what’s best for their health. Be patient. Give them time to process what you’ve said. They might eventually see past their own sense of denial. In the meantime, it’s important that you don’t blame yourself for their actions.

Help them change their habits. If your loved one is willing to address their drinking problem, you can play a supporting role in their efforts. Again, it’s not your job to control their behavior, but you can assist them in identifying their triggers and finding ways to better handle them.

  • If they drink because they’re lonely, for example, try to schedule more frequent face-to-face visits, or give them a call when in-person visits aren’t possible.
  • Encourage them to stay in touch with close friends or explore ways to become more social.
  • Consider home care services and adult day care centers as ways to add social interaction to their lives and ensure they’re eating healthier meals.
  • If your parent lives in an isolated area or is unable to get out much, it may be time to consider different housing options that provide greater opportunities for social connection.
  • If possible, join them in daily exercise and other healthy habits.

Your support can’t fully solve an older adult’s drinking problem, but it can be key to helping them confront their own issues. With patience, effort, and support, you can help your aging parent find health, joy, and satisfaction in their later years.

Last updated: March 2022

 

    Get more help

    Rethinking Drinking – Tools to help you check your drinking patterns, identify signs of a problem, and cut back. (National Institutes of Health)

    Alcohol Alert – Effects of alcohol on the brain, including blackouts and memory lapses. (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)

    What is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families (PDF) – Learn about treatment options and what you can do. (SAMHSA)

    Older Adults and Alcohol: You Can get Help (PDF) – Guide to alcohol abuse and recovery in older adults. (National Institute on Aging)

    Facts about Aging and Alcohol – The effects of alcohol and problem drinking. (National Institute on Aging)

    Overcoming Addiction: Find an effective path toward recovery – Find an effective path toward recovery. Special health report from Harvard Medical School. (Harvard Health Publishing)

    Loneliness and Social Isolation – Tips for staying connected. (National Institute on Aging)

    Support organizations for managing your alcohol use

    Most of these organizations have worldwide chapters:

    Women for Sobriety – Organization dedicated to helping women overcome addictions.

    Alcoholics Anonymous – Learn more about the 12 steps and find a support meeting in your area.

    SMART Recovery – Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) is a program that aims to achieve abstinence through self-directed change.

    Al-Anon and Alateen – Support groups for friends and families of problem drinkers.

     

    Professional help for alcohol treatment and recovery

    In the U.S.: Search SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.

    In the UK: Find NHS support services for alcohol addiction.

    In Canada: Find Quality Addiction Care from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.