Time to Send Granny to Rehab?

By Kristen McGuiness 08/19/11
Not everyone cleans up in their twenties and thirties. Or even their forties or fifties. What kind of challenges do you face when you're doing still doing meth at Mah Jongg?
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Grandma's getting clean Thinkstock

“I had tried to stop before,” Paula explains, a mother of two who has battled alcoholism for the majority of her life. Now in her mid-60s, with a bohemian style and thick blonde bob, Paula has finally come to terms with the fact that she is an alcoholic. “The first time I really tried to clean up was when I was in my late 40s,” she admits. “My brother sent me to a doctor and the doctor said, ‘You’re going to damage your liver if you keep drinking.’ I did whatever they said to do just to get them off my back.” 

But years later, after two failed attempts in treatment, Paula finally hit bottom. “I was 56, and for the last couple of years of my drinking, I kept trying to stop and couldn’t,” she recounts. “I told friends I needed to be left alone, that I would detox myself. I was still of the ilk that this was my problem and I needed to solve it. I didn’t think I was hurting everyone else. Drinking wasn’t working and yet I couldn’t stop.” She laughs. “It doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are, the story ends the same.”

In younger people, Hays explains, you might see legal problems—DUIs or tickets for public intoxication—while the older person sitting at home drinking might not have the same consequences.

Not every story like this ends as well as Paula’s. According to a study conducted by Lon R. Hays from the Department of Psychiatry at University of Kentucky College, “Although the definition of ‘elderly’ varies depending on the source used, it is estimated that 2.5 million older adults have ‘alcohol problems,’ and 21% of hospitalized persons over the age 60 have a diagnosis of alcoholism.” Other studies estimate that 17 percent of those over the age of 65 have an alcohol abuse problem—an issue that can be compounded by prescriptions for drugs (such as a sleeping pills or painkillers) that can overwhelm systems that are older and thus less efficient.

Of course, those aren’t the only issues. “Most of the time, when someone comes in over the age of 60 for treatment, they have been drinking for a long time,” says Hays. “One of the challenges for people trying to get sober at an older age is that they are set in their ways. Often it will take a medical issue or severe physical implications for them to see it as a problem.”

Peter, a 60-year-old handsome New York-based attorney and father of two, lived in a world of designer suits, which made it difficult for him to see the consequences of his drinking. “It wasn’t until I was waking up in the middle of the night with a mouth full of vomit that I began to recognize it was a problem,” he admits. “At the time, I was working as a consultant so I was able to drink in the morning and then pass out in the afternoon. I would then have wine at dinner and wait till my wife and children were asleep before going out and getting another bottle. I would walk the streets drinking at night and then get up in the morning and do it all over again.”

And yet he can’t imagine the situation unfolding any differently. “Everyone has their own path but I can’t conceive of getting sober in my 20s and 30s,” he says. “I started drinking young, promising myself that I would never be like my father, who was also an alcoholic. And I was almost instantly like him. I drank that way my whole life but I was successful. I had good jobs and always received promotions, and I created a life and a family. My father killed himself at 57, and I got sober at 58, but I know I wouldn’t have been ready or able to do it any earlier.”

Hays had a client whose similar professional success—and capacity for denial—also allowed him an extended drinking career. “He was a successful businessman who told me he had several drinks a day, often as many as five,” says Hays. “One time, he brought in his wife. And his wife asked if I knew what was in the drinks he was having. Turns out he was having many tumblers of vodka each night, which is a very different story than three mixed drinks.”

According to Hays, the main challenge with older people is that “often the typical social markers of alcoholism or addiction aren’t present.” In younger people, Hays explains, you might see legal problems—DUIs or tickets for public intoxication—while the older person sitting at home drinking might not have the same consequences.

That was the case for Janet, a 68-year-old mother of four from New York whose grey hair and grandmotherly smile belie her alcoholic bottom. “In my late 50s, I was homeless and in a wheelchair with pancreatitis,” she recounts. “At the beginning of my sobriety, I couldn’t even read or write because I had experienced so many seizures.”

Yet according to Dr. Dale Archer, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, and the medical director for psychiatric services at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, there are advantages to getting sober at an older age. “The concept of surrender can be easier to digest for a lot of older people,” he points out. “They already understand that there is a lot out of their control. Most of them have faced crises of magnitude along the way, whereas younger people often feel indestructible. Also, many older folks have support systems—family members and a larger community—that will help them in their recovery.”

Ironically perhaps, Janet’s biggest challenge in getting sober was working through her feelings about all those people who had tried to be her support system over the years. “I could not give up that guilt and shame around my drinking, particularly in regards to my children,” she admits. “When I was younger, I really didn’t think I was an alcoholic but I certainly proved it to myself. Once I surrendered the guilt and shame, I could finally get sober. I was living in a world of grey and there was nothing bright or happy about it. Then, when I got sober, everything started looking more colorful—the sky, the trees. I felt like I had been reborn.”

For older adults who think they might have a drinking problem, Archer recommends seeking the advice of their regular medical physician. “Older people should be getting a general physical every year,” he says. “The first thing that shows up is elevated liver enzymes, which can alert the doctor to chronic alcohol use so they can help the patient find the right treatment options.”

Hays agrees, pointing out that it may be more effective to consult a primary physician rather than an addiction specialist or psychiatrist. “If the family physician is able to point out that there is a physical or mental comorbidity—high blood pressure, liver dysfunction, brain complications—the affected person might be much more open to a solution than they would be if they were confronted and taken to a psychiatrist,” he says.

That was what happened with Peter, who confesses that knowing he was an alcoholic and doing something about it were two very different things, “I was well aware that I was an alcoholic, I just didn’t give a shit,” he says. “It took getting physically ill—DTs, vomiting, a genuine fear of asphyxiation—for my ego to finally let go and for me to have the psychic shift that made me want to change. And now today, I couldn’t be happier. To be able to say that I really believe that at 60, the best days of life are ahead of me, is the biggest blessing out there.” 

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about the 13th step and dreaming about drinking, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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