Maureen was 17 when she started drinking. Her new husband had been drafted, and back then, “Everybody in our social group drank.” Later, home with four children and no washer or dryer, she continued drinking to avoid stress and isolation. Holiday gatherings began with pre-dinner cocktails, and alcohol flowed all evening. When her husband died at age 53, Maureen drank to avoid the grief and loneliness.
Now Maureen (not her real name) is 84 and alcohol-free, but it wasn’t easy. Relapses occurred. Her body suffered, and she almost died. But Maureen got help from Liberation Programs of Stamford, Conn., and Charlene Berardino, the program’s senior outreach counselor. Maureen has been sober for 8 1/2 years.
Maureen’s story is not unique. The United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that by 2020, 4.4 million Americans age 50 and older will have alcohol and/or drug problems.
Berardino has been counseling older adults on substance abuse for almost a decade and embraces her work as both an individual outreach and vocation. A member of St. Mark’s Church, New Canaan, she says older people face special challenges with alcohol and drugs, but they often accept help when it’s offered and will do the necessary work in counseling to overcome their dependencies.
“I use a gentle, back-door approach,” she says. “I don’t threaten them or make them feel guilty. Older generations typically won’t seek counseling or acknowledge the problem. They feel great shame. But if I treat them with respect and they realize I’m there to help, not judge, we see very good results.”
Berardino works throughout Fairfield County in Connecticut. She leads weekly group counseling sessions in her office and provides individual counseling to housebound clients. Treatment usually lasts six months to a year. Clients can participate in telephone conference calls, and alumni often continue to attend meetings for support.
Alcohol and aging
Two types of substance abuse exist among older persons, early or late onset, according to the National Clearing House for Alcohol and Drug Information. Maureen’s case typifies early-onset, in which alcohol or drugs have caused lifelong problems.
Late-onset abuse often occurs unintentionally after a life-changing event, like retirement, death of a spouse or other loss. Removed from a job, feeling a loss of identity and finding they suddenly have more free time, a retiree who used to have one drink a day may have two or three. A once-weekly golf outing followed by drinks now happens four times a week.
In some retirement communities, drinking is a key element of social life, according to Berardino. Assisted-living facilities offer happy hours as part of weekly activities. Loss of physical ability, mobility and driving, loss of friends and loved ones all can trigger abuse when an individual turns to alcohol or painkillers to avoid emotional pain, according to AARP resources about grief and loss.
Grieving typically takes one year or longer, says Berardino, and people may unintentionally overmedicate with doctor-prescribed antidepressants.
Problems also arise when an aging person’s metabolism slows and alcohol and medications stay longer in the body, reports SAMHSA. A 65-year-old can’t tolerate the same amount of alcohol he or she drank 30 years ago. Sleeping pills have greater effect. Older individuals use more over-the-counter drugs, many of which contain alcohol. Those drugs combined with more alcohol or prescription medicines can be dangerous or lethal.
Symptoms of aging like loss of memory or balance, slurred speech and dementia, mirror substance abuse, according to the National Clearing House for Alcohol and Drug Information. Two myths about older people often preclude them from getting help, says Berardino. First, she says, “Family members say, ‘Let Grandpa drink. It’s his last pleasure.’ But if he quits drinking, he can live a longer happier life.”
Others believe older adults are set in their ways and don’t want to change. But statistics show that once older people get treatment tailored to their needs, they can benefit. “It’s never too late,” says Berardino.
Quite often the abuse is temporary, but if it doesn’t resolve itself a person or his or her family should seek help, she advises. Berardino says more agencies are addressing specific needs of older adults. She also finds that faith is a key element of recovery for this generation, as it confronts end-of-life issues.
“Faith has been important throughout their lives,” she says. “I’m comfortable talking with them about their faith. I have felt called to work with this population, not just in alcohol abuse. I feel a real connection with them.”
The Rev. Vicki M. Davis, curate at St. Mark’s, says, “Charlene is an inspiring example of the weaving together of one’s faith and work in a seamless whole. Our congregation is strengthened and blessed by all those who, like Charlene, ‘walk the walk.’”