What Information Do Seniors Receive on the Internet about Alcohol?
As more and more people have access to computers and become comfortable with them, the Internet would appear to be a useful source for all sorts of health and other issues, including alcohol problems. Well, exactly what kinds of information on the Internet on alcohol problems do seniors get from seniors’ information sources.
What kinds of information and advice would family members likely run across? Is it an accurate picture? Is the message hopeful?
The short answer is, "We have a long way to go." Website readers (seniors, families, and service providers) need to be diligent and somewhat critical in analyzing what they are reading on the web.
A. The Language Used: It is fairly common to see the word “alcoholic” used to refer to any person who has any type or any degree of problem with alcohol. However, in reality, alcohol problems exist on a continuum.
It is also very common to see the word “elderly” used when referring to older adults (and to see it even on websites aimed at seniors). To be fair, the seniors’ websites are usually quoting some “expert” and it is that person who is using the word “elderly”. A term like “our elderly” is paternalistic and highly condescending language, because it treats older adults as property.
Even the term “elderly” is problematic. "Elderly" may be an appropriate term for a very frail person in his or her late 80s, possibly of declining mental capacity. It is not appropriate for a healthy and active 55, 63 or 78 year old.
Want to learn more about more respectful ways of talking with and about seniors? You can find "Communicating with Seniors: Advice, Techniques and Tips",” by Health Canada on the Internet at
Or, for anyone looking for information on communicating with older adults when developing print materials, there is more information on the Seniors and Alcohol website, at www.agingincanada.ca/brochures_tips.htm
B. Exaggeration of Figures: Many seniors do experience alcohol problems, and it has a significant impact on their lives and the lives of others who care about them. To be fair, it is difficult to determine the exact number of seniors with alcohol problems. National survey techniques currently leave a lot to be desired.
However there is a lot of overstatement on websites about how common the problem is. Seniors, family, and service providers should have the right to good information. They should know that it is not true that 1 in 6 seniors have an alcohol problem (which is what one web site noted).
Commentary: Think about it. That would be 16.5% of all seniors. When you consider that between 30 and 40% of people aged 65 and over don’t drink, using that 1 in 6 figure would mean every one in four of those seniors who consumed alcohol at all had an alcohol problem. (My figures: 165/1000; 165/ (1000- 35%=650).
Overstatement is as harmful as understatement. People either overreact (“It’s an epidemic”) or they discount any otherwise good information on the site.
C. Repetition of Inaccurate Information:
Bad or out of date information gets repeated a lot on Internet websites. For example, it was quite common to see this statement on the Internet:
“Alcohol-related problems may cause 70 percent of elderly hospitalizations according to Sue Berkman in a current issue of 'Good Housekeeping'. It affects 50 percent of nursing- home residents.”
"It is estimated that 70 percent of all hospitalized older persons and up to 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems," said Egan. (of Hazelden)
The 70% figure which tends to be repeated in articles listed by JoinTogether. To be fair to JoinTogether, they don’t have control over the articles, they just list them.
Once again, consider the 70% figure in the context of the fact that 30-40% of all seniors don’t drink, and that rate of not drinking is much, much higher among people in institutional care.
So where did that 70% figure came from? It seems to be a very early Alcohol Alert published by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 1988. It, in turn was referencing articles from the very early 1980s, where the authors were talking about studies from the 1970s. Anything that is referring to information that is two or three decades old in terms of prevalence and incidence should be treated as suspect. The NIAAA updated their information on alcohol and aging in 1998, but still keeps the earlier version on their website.
The 50% nursing home figure is also questionable. It also really gives a mistaken impression to staff in nursing homes that alcohol abuse is rampant and must be snuffed out.
Going back to the original article, the author reports on an American study showing 49% of the residents having alcohol problems, but he also notes that this tend to be with younger population (e.g. young veterans), and that nursing homes are being used as rehabilitation centres. So, he does not say that it is that high among older adults.
D. Offering a Bit Simplistic Solutions:
Advice columns in seniors’ or caregiving sites sometimes offer pat solutions for when alcohol problems may be surfacing. Consider this web advice given to a daughter:
“Have you considered that she may be bored? Maybe she needs to spend more time with supportive and caring people such as yourself. This will alleviate any kind of feelings of loneliness and disconnection from the world. I’m sure the retirement community offers many activities. Does she still read? How about a trip to the library? Did she ever have any hobbies like gardening? Maybe she can’t garden anymore but would love a walk in the park this spring to see all the flowers budding. And, the exercise would be great too! Eating well and getting exercise are not only good for physical well–being at any age, but also for mental acuity."
Or this advice that came from one provincial addiction commission:
“…Throughout our lives it makes sense to spend our time wisely and enjoy the best health possible. Seniors can choose healthier alternatives to alcohol use - exercise, a second career, hobbies, or professional counselling to help deal with grief and loneliness. “
It is highly condescending to give simplistic information that fails to understand how alcohol problems in later life develop and are maintained. Imagine being the recipient of this information to "just start a second career, and you'll be fine".
E. Wrong/ Inaccurate Information:
It is surprising to see questionable information on fairly well recognized sites, such as Alcohol Alert #40 (1998) on the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism (NIAAA) website. In talking about “Does Aging Increase Sensitivity to Alcohol? “ It suggests that older adults metabolize and eliminate alcohol as efficiently as younger persons.
Commentary: Often people’s kidneys and livers do not eliminate/ process alcohol as efficiently in later life when to compared to when they were younger adults. This is particularly the case for older adults who have had a chronic problem with alcohol.
F. Condescending Explanations:
It is interesting (and sometimes very upsetting) to see the explanations some “experts” give for why an alcohol problem might develop in later life. Consider the article “When Seniors Drink: Alcoholism and the Elderly” published on the Missouri Bar website, where the author (who is identified as a counsellor for a very high profile American treatment centre) states:
“…Unfortunately, not everyone ages successfully. Some cannot accept the physical changes that come with age. Others can't handle the loss of a spouse or friends, or they can't adjust to retirement. And, often, these individuals turn to alcohol. “
Commentary: So, according to this author, alcohol problems develop because a person has “failed to age successfully”. I guess that means, the person would be considered a double failure because
a) she or he has not had the "willpower" to avoid an alcohol problem (yes, I’m being facetious) , and
b) she or he has not handled growing older properly.
G. Directly or Indirectly Promoting Alcohol as a Way to Improve Health in Later Life
This may be the most trend of most concern. It happens in both Internet and other public information sources.
For example, a popular consumer site on health and aging under the topic of "macular degeneration", the author lists drinking red wine in moderation under "Prevention". Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in people over age 65.
The research on the connection between red wine and macular degeneration is still equivocal. However, the more important issue is that there is nothing in the article stating what constitutes "drinking moderately."
Losing their vision and not being able to engage in vision dependent activities like driving is a significant concern among many older adults. Many people independent of the level or frequency of their drinking will define themselves as "moderate drinkers".
It is very important to know and identify the risks and benefits of drinking for older adults.
Page last updated Sunday October 31, 2004
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