"I've earned it."
It's a sentiment often used when someone has worked hard and feels they deserve a reward. And it's also a rationale used by senior citizens for why they drink to the point of the reward becoming a problem.
That's what Max, 74, one of four panelists who spoke Thursday at the Enumclaw Senior Center about the issue of "Seniors and Sobriety," shared with about a dozen community members who wanted to learn more about the growing epidemic of alcoholism among seniors.
Max, along with the other panelists, are members of Alcoholics Anonymous; he joined AA at age 55.
The AA-related group Seniors in Sobriety, "it's very new," Max said. Many times, seniors lose a spouse, so they stay home, relax, feel they've earned a drink, feel they've earned a second drink, and the downward spiral begins.
Senior Center Manager Jobyna Nickum expanded on the drivers for seniors which largely stem from social isolation following the loss of a spouse or loved one, loss of a job and loss of one's place in society.
Community members wanted to know more about what distinguishes a senior alcoholic from a young person with a drinking problem. Similarly, how might approaches toward recovery differ when an older person might feel they're at the end of their life, compared with a younger person?
Lisa, who is a social worker, responded that the basic fear behind the drinking is the same: "if you take away my alcohol, then what?"
However, circumstances that lead individuals to AA are different. Young people come to AA when they've had a DUI; an older person tends to come around following a fall or some physical accident that required a hospital visit.
Nickum pointed out that life expectancy has increased over the years so it was conceivable for someone in their 60s to recover and live well into their 90s and beyond.
Alcoholism is not a normal part of aging, she said. "Aging has its own health issues. Don't compound it."
If you would like to attend an AA meeting for seniors here in Enumclaw, the group meets every Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Sacred Hearth Church. It is an open meeting, meaning it's open to both alcoholics and non-alcoholics.
There are no dues, and the only requirement to join is "a desire to stop drinking," said Max.
Support for Families
The website Seniors for Sobriety offers this description of the issue:
Alcohol abuse in the elderly is an Invisible or Hidden Epidemic. It is often mistaken for other conditions associated with the aging process, particularly depression. As part of routine care, it is recommended that health care providers discuss alcohol use with their older patients.
Family members should become as familiar with the drinking habits of Great Uncle Harry or Grandma Jane as they are with their medical conditions. They need to be aware that over the counter drugs, prescription medications, and herbal remedies in seniors can be dangerous, or even fatal, when mixed with alcohol.
There are many elders that alcohol has robbed of hope, dignity, and the ability to cope. With treatment, the alcoholic has an opportunity to develop a satisfying way of life free from alcohol and become happily and usefully whole.
Living with an alcoholic is in itself a problem, said Max. "If you live with an alcoholic, you are just as sick as an alcoholic even if you're not consuming alcohol," he said.
The group touted the Al-Anon program as a great resource for family members who are working through how to handle an alcoholic and best support their recovery to find their own network of support.
Al-Anon is an option for people who are dealing with an alcoholic who isn't yet ready to admit they have a problem, Nickum said.
There are four Al-Anon meetings in the Plateau area:
- Sundays at 6 p.m. at Calvary Presbyterian Church
- Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. at Community Presbyterian Church in Buckley (152 S. Cottage)
- Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. at Enumclaw Community Church
- Fridays at 8 p.m. at Community Presbyterian Church in Buckley
For more information about the local District No. 54 chapter of AA, call 360-829-0154 or visit www.district54aa.org.