Educating Seniors about Alcohol and Health
Seniors who have alcohol problems may have difficulty understanding the connection between their alcohol consumption and the specific health problems they are currently facing, such as the lack of feeling in their hands or feet.
In part, this reflects a serious omission in the public education currently provided by health care agencies, addiction services, and the government. Most of the public education in this area tends to focus on the short term effects of alcohol, or the legal consequences that younger adults are more likely to face than older adults.
Seniors usually recognize that drinking can lead to hangovers. They may not recognize that it leads to falls. They may not be aware that it also negatively affects two critical aspects of their independence- mobility and memory.
This is an unfortunate oversight. Practitioners note that, while a good number of seniors feel uncomfortable discussing an alcohol problem (See Understanding the Stigma); they are far more willing if the issue is placed in the context of a health problem.
Seniors also express considerable confusion over media accounts of the potential health benefits of alcohol in preventing coronary heart disease. Publication education needs to clearly identify the health trade-offs that seniors face when deciding to drink.
How Health Care Professionals Can Help
If you are concerned about a senior's alcohol consumption, you may want to consider letting the person know about some of the specific ways in which alcohol is affecting his or her health. This alone will not cure an alcohol or other substance problem, but it may "plant the seed". Without the information, seniors remain unaware of the health connection, for example between alcohol and the swelling in their feet. Or they may be under the mistaken impression that alcohol is harmless. They won't know, unless you tell them.
There is evidence that a brief intervention approach works, particularly when doctors talk to men who are heavy drinkers. (1) Research and clinical practice stress:
This approach works even better when the senior has experienced a recent problem caused by alcohol.
That does not mean seniors are not knowledgeable or cannot learn. They are. It simply means that when information is only provided in a written form, learning and remembering and applying the information to their own situation can be a much greater challenge for some.
(1) Anderson, P. & Scott, E. (1992) "The effect of general practitioners advice to heavy drinking men." British Journal of Addiction Vol. 87, 891-900.
(2) G. Gutman, Wister, H. Campbell & J. Duguid. (1995) Fact Book on Aging in British Columbia (2nd. ed.) (Vancouver, B.C.: Gerontology Research Centre, Simon Fraser University).
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Association des intervenants en toxicomanie du Québec (AITQ)
Page last updated Wednesday June 23, 2004
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