In her late 70s, Becky, felt out of place during the Covid-19 crisis. She was finally coming to grips with her alcohol addiction. The problem was exacerbated by her use of prescribed medications – medications she needed to navigate aging.
“It started with a drink to help me sleep and turned into several drinks to get through the day and then eventually a bottle a day.”
“I no longer worked, lost my spouse, and had new aches and pains. Suddenly, I found myself drinking to cope,” she shared. “It wasn’t until I fell and hurt myself while drinking that I decided to use my savings for help at a women’s treatment center.”
Older women wrestling with addiction, are in two categories – early onset and late onset. Early onset includes those who began drinking before 60 (usually in their teens). Those like Becky are considered late onset.
Late onset drinkers are likely to have been “teetotalers” before their golden years. Both types of drinking patterns have unique sets of problems and effects.
Sadly, older women who struggle with substance abuse are overlooked and face barriers to age-appropriate treatment. Unlike other groups, women over 60 are not screened much by health care providers for substance abuse.
More often the effects that are present, like falling, memory loss, weight fluctuations, and more, are attributed to other things.
At 60-plus, we’re definitely not good candidates for some programs. A wilderness recovery program where one would rock climb, zip line, and engage in high adventure are less than ideal. If lucky, an older woman without private insurance might even find the right facility. Yet fewer and fewer effective programs are taking Medicaid and Medicare.
Older women who struggle with substance abuse may not believe anything is significantly wrong to warrant treatment interventions. They often just chalk it up to “old age.”
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends those over 65 consume no more than one drink per day or seven a week. However, if you’re drinking even a minimum amount and having problems, you’ll want to have a serious discussion with your doctor.
Start by self-identifying these common problems:
These can be signs of other health issues, yet for those who drink regularly or a lot, they often have ties to alcohol use.
If you’re still not convinced cutting alcohol way back or all together is a good idea, consider the following:
As older people, we metabolize alcohol more slowly than our younger selves. That “woozy” effect we get from an evening cocktail or wine with dinner will last a lot longer.
The scientific reason is we lack higher levels of the enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). Women have half as much of this enzyme in our bodies than men to begin with.
ADH runs abundantly through our system when we’re young.
Why is this important? ADH is needed to break down alcohol – a toxin when in our system. According to Alexis Kuerbis, a social worker who specializes in alcohol use disorders at New York’s Hunter College, we start losing ADH significantly from our system at the age of 50.
As older adults, our bodies also have less water in them. When we drink, more of the alcohol stays in our blood as we just aren’t as hydrated as we used to be.
If you do choose to drink, you may want to take these actions:
#1 Limit yourself to one drink.
#2 Turn that glass of wine into a wine spritzer.
#3 Keep a drinking diary including what and how much you drank and where you were. Discuss it with your doctor or health professional.
#4 Always drink lots of water, soda, or juice after having an alcoholic beverage.
#5 List reasons to curtail your drinking – like sleeping better, feeling healthier, or improving relationships.
#6 Don’t drive – even after one drink. As older people, our reflex times are impaired even without alcohol in our blood.
#7 Don’t drink alone, and consider switching to no alcohol “mocktails” when socializing. They are popular and filled with nutrients, unlike alcohol.
#8 Try an AA meeting for support to stop drinking. You’ll find people of all ages and meetings that are gender or age specific.
#9 Discuss your real drinking habits with your doctor and find out which of your prescriptions prohibit you from drinking.
#10 Don’t keep alcohol in your home. Having no alcohol there can help limit drinking.
#11 Drink slowly, sip your drink, and never drink on an empty stomach.
#12 Pick alcohol-free days. Decide not to drink a day or two each week or maybe stop for a week or a month. See how you feel emotionally and physically without alcohol in your life. By taking a break from alcohol, you’re on your way to drinking less.
#13 Watch out for pressure from others. Practice ways to say no politely. You don’t have to drink just because others are.
#14 Don’t give up. Most people are successful after several attempts. You’ll probably have setbacks, but don’t let them keep you from reaching your long-term goal.
#15 Don’t replace alcohol with things like pot or other medication. Trading one health problem for another just isn’t success.
#16 Take a walk, play sports, get takeout at a venue not serving alcohol, or watch a movie – these activities are wonderful alternatives to drinking.
Perhaps you’re drinking a glass of wine at home alone while you’re reading this blog. Ask yourself if you need that glass of wine. The answer should almost always be “no” when you’re over 60. It’s just not worth it for so many reasons.
Have you ever suffered from alcohol abuse? What was it like? Why did you start drinking? How did you manage to cut back or stop? Please share your experience and let’s help each other.
It definitely isn’t easy. I joined an online program which had input from a psychologist who would review my progess online to my drinking log and answers to questions posed in the program to monitor success. I also paid for Zoom calls with a psychologist ($1,000). Neither of these were very useful. I think one of the most effective ways to cut down on drinking is to not have alcohol in the house or to have very little.Otherwise the temptation is too great. Drinking is a very difficult habit to break. I thought it would be much easier.
Thank you very much for sharing this article. As an older woman, recovering from lifelong alcohol misuse, I find a difficult to find other women in a similar situation, and I would be very happy to get some feedback from the Sixty and Me community.
I qualify for an ‘early’ alcoholic. I finally managed to tackle my alcohol problems when I was 65. The 1. step was to accept, that I was not able to deal with my problems on my own, that I need help. I found there is lots of help available, if you seriously look for it – and most of it is for free. AA was not for me, so, after advice from my counsellor I joined Smart Recovery, a program that is based on self-responsibility. To be the oldest by far in all meetings wasn’t always easy, but I managed most of the time to overcome my feelings of embarrasment. Stop drinking was not the hardest thing for me: it was to deal with the underlying issues, what took time and some work. It was to ask, why am I drinking? Alcohol as a mechanism to avoid (emotional) pain. I had to turn my life completely around, and being sober for 6 years, I can finally say, I have a life now, that is worth living.
Check out the Sober School…Online class.