If I told you that while I was on duty recently I was called out to a drunk driver involved in a road traffic accident, I am guessing that you would have little sympathy. Witnesses say he was weaving along the road and eventually clipped a bollard before mounting the pavement and ploughing head-on into a tree. This all happened at the time of day when the town’s streets would shortly be filled with children, absent mindedly chattering as they make their way home from school. Thankfully he didn’t injury anyone else; but arguably he could have. How does that make you feel?
If I told you that the driver was in his early nineties, and was the sole carer for his even older wife who has Alzheimer’s disease; that they had lost their only son the year before and that he was suffering from depression; that he had popped out to buy bread, beans and fruit cake for their tea – would you feel, or rather, should you feel any differently?
Although alcohol abuse is statistically at epidemic proportions among older people, it is a much ignored, unrecognised and overlooked issue. Perhaps, in part it is because once one has retired there are simply less people around to notice.
The majority of drinkers who have started later on in life have been affected by social isolation and physical health problems. A great number are affected by grief or loss, and other social problems. Perhaps also, we (as health care workers) just don’t consider alcohol has an issue for the older population, yet some of the reasons that older adults seek medical assistance (falls being a common example) may be attributed to alcohol intake. In addition, older people often take a variety of medications and possible interactions should be considered.
Even drinking in small amounts can result in greater problems for older people because although the exact cause is unclear, even moderate amounts of alcohol impair their functioning more than that of younger drinkers. This may be because of the changes in the way alcohol is metabolized and removed from the body differently in older people. One study based at the University of Florida, showed that adults aged 50 to 74 who drank the equivalent of two units of alcohol took five seconds longer to complete a task than adults aged 25 to 35 who had the same amount to drink. Perhaps, just as concerning is that the older people involved in the study did not perceive themselves to be impaired.
Although the faster accidents resulting in death and severe injuries are more probably common in the younger age group, perhaps society shouldn’t be too quick to fall in to the trap of stereotyping young binge drinking boy-racers as the only danger on our roads.