If addiction has taken you by surprise in later life.
Dr Tony Rao is Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist and Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, and Psychological Medicine and Older Adults Directorate Lead for Dual Diagnosis in Older Adults at the Greenvale Specialist Care Unit for Older Adults
Now we are in another lockdown, it reminds is how much we value face to face contact to keep us going through life’s ups and downs. To look forward to that human connection. To feel loved and valued. To give us hope. Not least so for people living with addiction.
It’s not just about missing the closeness of a physical presence in the same space. It’s also about hearing that reassuring voice across the room, the empathic nod and the flow of non-verbal communication that is so difficult to replicate across a computer screen.
Imagine now what it could be like for an older person who may not be able to get out at all and whose social circle has been laid bare by the absence of friends who have left this world or who have moved away. A bottle may be their only comfort and is both their friend and their foe at the same time.
Just over 50 years ago, Professor Griffith Edwards - a pioneer of addiction psychiatry said: "It would be too optimistic to suppose that the relative under-representation of subjects in the older age groups among clients of information centres is just explained by older people having generally got the treatment they required or having reverted to normal drinking...it seems likely that this finding is in part a hint of the diminished life expectancy of the alcoholic."
Half a century later, we are living longer and addiction is also no longer a young person’s problem. In fact, the population of “baby boomers” now aged between 55 and 74, has shown the fastest rise in alcohol use compared with previous generations of the same age and with younger generations. It doesn’t make a difference how we measure it. Whether drinking over UK low risk limits, alcohol related hospital admissions or alcohol related deaths, all point to a rising tide of addiction in older people.
If addiction has crept up on you as an older person, it might certainly take you by surprise. The classic signs are sometimes not there for you or others to spot. You may find that your body becomes dependent on alcohol even at lower amounts than you might expect. Any changes in your every life may be passed off as being because of ongoing physical problems or the fact that you have already limited your activities as you have grown older.
It can take hold of you like a darkness that descends on you without you even realising. That day when you said you would phone your daughter for a chat, but you would rather have a drink instead. That evening when you usually watch your favourite drama but sit there through a bottle of wine and fall asleep in the chair. You always listen to the radio, but these days it just doesn’t interest you.
If you find that alcohol addiction has started to take control, you want to reach out but might be worried about the consequences. For some, it may the first time that this has happened and you may feel that whoever you speak to, they will judge you.
You might easily fall into the trap of actually believing that no-one would bother themselves with someone who has brought addiction on themselves. Well, that’s where you’re wrong.
If you had a stroke, would you sit at home and think that there was nothing that anyone can do for you? I’m sure you wouldn’t’. So why should addiction be any different? Whether you look at addiction as a disorder, an illness, a condition or a problem, you deserve the same treatment as anyone else. And there are organisations and people in your community who exist to support you.
It may be possible to get yourself to cut down, depending on how much you drink. You can start by working out how much you drink on a typical day using a unit calculator. For older people, any reduction will take at least twice the time compared with younger people. But this also needs to be done at a pace that is manageable and with support or people in close contact with you. However, if you worry that you have developed a dependency on alcohol then it is vital that you seek clinical advice and support from your GP or specialist organisations like Action on Addiction. You should not cut down or stop drinking without medical support. This can have severe consequences and be life threatening.
If you experience withdrawal symptoms, it means you are reducing your intake too fast and if you experience symptoms such as severe shaking and very heavy sweating, seizures (fits), start to see, hear or feel things that aren’t there, get confused about where you are, what time it is, who you are with or notice poor coordination and unsteadiness on your feet, you need to seek help immediately through emergency services.
Action on Addiction describe an addiction as when the substance or behaviour (in this case alcohol) becomes the most important thing in your life, more important that work, family or wider relationships. If you are in any doubt about whether your drinking is starting to take over your life, there will also be an organisation that can help. Your GP can refer you or you can get in contact with your local service through your local council and there are AA meetings online in almost every community in the UK. Either way, you will receive an assessment that is confidential and can help you on the path to recovery. You will not be alone.
Living with alcohol addiction in later life doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. In fact, research has shown that older people who engage with treatment can have the same or sometimes better outcomes than younger people when it comes to living healthy and independent lives.
What’s most important of all is that you try and stay connected to the outside world. There should always be hope and addiction is no exception.
Dr Tony Rao
Consultant Psychiatrist for Older People
At Clouds House, there are a number of 60+ clients engaging and benefitting from the residential treatment episode. It is a matter of record that the oldest client to complete the treatment programme was 81.
Please ask for help
If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction