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Elderly more marginalised, developing alcohol problems

Alcohol use among Finland’s senior citizens is growing and older women are now becoming alcoholics at the same rate as men. The increase is apparent in home care visits and more trips to the hospital.

Tupakkaveroa on nostettu viime vuosina puolen vuoden välein. Image: Nella Nuora / Yle

The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim estimates that Finland is home to half a million high-risk users of alcohol, whose heavy drinking creates health problems. While the country’s overall consumption is on par with the European average, heavy drinking is still a major problem. Duodecim says one in every five male health care patients is a problem drinker, and every tenth female is also.

The senior substance abuse branch of the Finnish charity Sininauhaliitto says that among Finland’s elderly, most people control their drinking, but there is a growing trend for seniors to cross the boundaries into heavy drinking habits and develop a problem.

They say that two-thirds of the elderly heavy drinkers were hard drinkers their whole life, but most of the rest started drinking heavily only after they retired. Another small percentage drinks moderate amounts of alcohol, but in combination with other medications.

A daily alcohol fix

Nurse Maarit Engelberg from the city of Jyväskylä’s senior services unit laments what she sees in her work. Alcohol use has clearly increased, and for many it has become an everyday event.

"Most are men who have used alcohol heavily even earlier in their life, but unfortunately, women are catching up," she says.

Laila Honkonen of Jyväskylä’s home care division agrees.

"Women tend to be closet drinkers, binging now and then. It only comes to light when their blood tests begin to act up," Honkonen says.

Many elderly drinkers say they started drinking in order to sleep better, or to find comfort in their loneliness. Part of the phenomenon is explained by broader changes in the drinking culture, but there are also a range of individual reasons.

"Perhaps life hasn’t turned out like they wanted. Their spouse has died or their marriage didn’t work out and they are alone. Maybe they have grown ill. Money grows scarce once they are retired. All of things have an effect on many people’s reaching for the bottle for solace," says Engelberg.

Not a problem solver

The problem is that alcohol doesn’t really bring the comfort many are seeking. Research shows it creates problems sleeping, anxiety and depression. Not to mention that a dose of alcohol that was considered normal in a person’s forties can be dangerous when a person is in their sixties.

"Two servings in a row each day, or seven a week is already a risk. A bottle of cider or beer is considered a serving," Engelberg says.

The increase in elderly alcohol use has also been apparent in climbing incidents of injuries reported at hospitals and home care services.

"It's more and more common for us to make a home visit and find our client is intoxicated and forgot to take their meds. Or the client might have fallen and become injured in the accident," says Honkonen.

From time to time, home care staff also arrives to see that clients haven’t been to the store and are in need of nourishment, or they complain of financial troubles due to unpaid bills.

Increases social exclusion

"There are many seniors with long-term illnesses in the home care system, and when their alcohol use rises, their illness grows worse, meaning that their need for care increases. For example, alcohol mixes badly with drugs that affect the central nervous system. When home services are offered, some clients may refuse them," says Engelberg.

Laila Honkonen sees the same behaviour. Using alcohol to combat loneliness is a vicious circle.

"The people around them go away and they become even lonelier. Maybe then they turn to alcohol even more. If their children find out that their parents have an alcohol problem, they stop bringing the grandchildren to be looked after."