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Risk Factors

There are many reasons for alcohol abuse among seniors. Many elderly people experience a loss of identity after retirement. Since many of us focus our lives primarily upon our vocation, retirement forces us to look outside the workplace for fulfillment, a difficult adjustment for some. For some, retirement brings boredom.

As people age, many experience a loss of friends and support networks. Retirement may mean the loss of work-related relationships, and other losses may be caused by relocation or death. The loss of a souse can be especially devastating for the elderly. The ensuing loneliness can be powerful impetus to abuse alcohol.

Many physiological changes accompany the aging process, some of which can affect vision and ambulation. Many seniors face isolation, as they are no longer able to drive, lack dependable transportation, or live in rural areas. All of these are risk factors for alcohol consumption.

For some elderly persons, chronic diseases are accompanied by physical pain that is debilitating and hard to control. Others may have emotional illnesses such as depression. Both physical and emotional pains are risk factors for alcohol misuse. Older people may attempt "self-medication" with alcohol to alleviate pain. Others may have difficulty sleeping and use alcohol as a sleep aid.

Another risk is gender. Historically, more elderly men have been identified as problem drinkers. Men have more medical complications from alcohol than do women, but are by no means immune to alcohol abuse. Women generally begin drinking at a later age than men. They are also more likely to have complications associated with combining alcohol and medication than are men, as they are more likely than men to be on a regime that requires medication. Financial problems may also precipitate problem drinking. Decreased income due to retirement or death of a spouse can be a stressor that increases the risk of alcohol abuse.

Denial is often a factor in elderly drinking. Those seniors who have long-standing or early onset drinking may be more resistant to treatment than late-onset drinkers, who may begin drinking with retirement or another stressor. Late-onset drinkers may be more difficult for family members to recognize, and the effects of alcohol may be interpreted as age-related changes. Because alcohol abuse is a new behavior for the late-onset drinker, the family may not even consider alcohol use as a concern.