Battling alcohol addiction

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Battling alcohol addiction; Loneliness often cause of problem among seniors

Rose is the classic elderly alcoholic. After her husband died from Alzheimer's disease, the 73-year-old woman confined herself to her home.

Her only contact was with the driver of the Dial-a-Bottle home delivery service who kept her supplied with the liquor she drank in ever-increasing amounts.

By the time authorities found her, Rose -- not her real name -- was suffering severe malnutrition and dementia -- a condition that causes mental confusion, said Marilyn Wright of Victoria.

Wright is co-ordinator of the Victoria Innovative Seniors Treatment Agency, or VISTA, an alcohol treatment program designed to meet the needs of the elderly.

She said Rose is typical of the older people counselled by VISTA.

"The majority of our clients are women 67 to 75 years old who are suffering from loneliness, grieving after the death of a spouse or are separated from supportive family members and friends."

Many of these women, when it came time to retire, moved with their husbands to the balmier climate of Canada's West Coast from the harsh weather of the Prairie provinces, Wright said.

"When their spouse dies, they're thrown into isolation and they turn to alcohol for solace," she said. "Most were only social drinkers during their earlier years and were able to handle an occasional glass of hard liquor or wine."

However, as people get older and their bodies change, they can't metabolize alcohol as effectively, said Wright. In addition, alcohol is a depressant that can interact with prescribed medications; this can lead to falls, or make an older person appear confused.

VISTA was started in January 1989 with a $320,000-a-year grant from the drug and alcohol branch of British Columbia's Labor Ministry.

To be eligible for the program, clients must be 55 or older and be referred by medical professionals, homemakers, agencies, friends, family or other people affected.

The VISTA team includes counsellors trained in social work, psychiatric nursing and psychology as well as a medical consultant who specializes in geriatric medicine.

Wright said there have been more than 300 referrals to VISTA in the last year.

She said that too often family and friends may attribute an older person's unnatural slowness or confusion to dementia rather than alcohol or drugs.

In Rose's case, when she received counselling and the support she needed and the alcohol was removed, the so-called dementia as well as the malnutrition disappeared and her life improved.

"Sometimes doctors unwittingly view the side-effects of drug and alcohol abuse as signs of normal aging," Wright said.

"Doctors don't seem comfortable talking to their elderly patients about alcohol abuse."

In fact, some VISTA clients have been prescribed "a drop of brandy" at bedtime to help them sleep.

Wright said most VISTA clients are assessed and treated in the privacy of their homes, "or when necessary in either acute or chronic-care settings."

A small number can be treated in group therapy sessions.

Wright said anyone who suspects an older family member or friend has a problem with drugs or alcohol, should watch for these signs:

*Sallow skin.

*Yellow or bloodshot eyes.

*Increased incidence of infection.

*Abnormal bleeding.

*Water retention in hands and feet.

*Gastric disturbances.

*Cigarette or other burns on hands, chest or clothing, furniture or carpet.

*Bruises, especially at furniture height and back of hands.

*Excessive smoking.

*Changes in sleep patterns, especially insomnia.

*Little or no appetite.

* Nesting -- a favorite chair with a table to hold ashtray, drinks, etc., where one can sit and drink, usually facing the television.

*Unkempt personal appearance.

*Slovenly surroundings.

*Persistent financial difficulty.

*Frequent hand tremors.

*Moodiness and mood swings; outbursts of anger or tearfulness and helplessness.