Alcohol Use May Worsen in Nursing Homes

Ten to 20 percent of the people in nursing homes are problem drinkers — and the number of addicts is likely to rise sharply as the baby boom turns to a nursing home boom.

"Today's elderly grew up in a period when alcohol was prohibited. It shaped their values," said Frederic Blow, director of the Veterans Affairs' Serious Mental Illness Treatment, Research and Evaluation Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. By 2030, one in five people will be more than 65 years old.

Different Attitudes on Alcohol, Drugs

"Baby boomers are more likely to have used illegal drugs. They grew up in a different atmosphere of alcohol use," said Blow, also an associate professor and senior research scientist in the University of Michigan's psychiatry department. They have a different attitude to drugs' ability to fix problems — and in how to tell when someone's having a problem with drugs, he said. It's anyone's guess what to expect, Blow said at the first joint conference of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on the Aging, held earlier this year in New Orleans. "Older people with an alcohol problem are more likely to end up in health-care settings," he said.

Enfeebled Alcoholics

Although alcoholism is a serious problem for 5 percent or less of the general public, alcoholics make up 10 percent to 15 percent of those in hospitals or other primary care, 10 percent to 20 percent of those in nursing homes, and 5 percent to 10 percent of those in community mental health centers, Blow said. Nursing home patients get their booze from families and staff. "The patients may be able to walk out and buy it themselves," Blow added. Another problem emerges as people age and even healthy bodies become less tolerant of alcohol. Many ailments associated with age make alcohol actively dangerous, and medicines for other diseases can react badly with alcohol. For someone with an ulcer, hepatitis, very frequent heartburn or pancreatitis, anything more than one drink a month is hazardous, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Board of Family Practice. It said three drinks in one day — or a drink a day more often than three times a week — would be harmful for these patients. "We need to be educating people about what is excessive and how to deal with it," Blow said. Alcohol can cause dangerous side effects with psychoactive drugs, pain drugs and sedatives, Blow said. And, while 11 percent of all adults regularly use prescription drugs, older people use 25 to 30 percent of all prescriptions, he said.

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