Bev Mueller, a substance abuse counselor with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Juneau, joined the Juneau Commission on Aging at the Juneau Senior Center Thursday morning to speak about the potentially dangerous effects of alcohol use among seniors.
Alaska has a particularly high rate of alcoholism and drug use, and Mueller said that problem impacts older Alaskans as well.
“You see the street people. I see them when they come in to treatment at Rainforest (Recovery Center),” said Mueller, who spends part of her time at the treatment center run by Bartlett Regional Hospital, about Juneau’s homeless population. “And that is a revolving door for the community, and very expensive. It costs us a lot of money and it gives us not a real positive view of seniors, unfortunately.”
Mueller said that when thinking about alcoholism, many people do not think of senior citizens, especially those who are relatively well off.
“We expect them to be clean, sober, pillars of the community,” Mueller said.
One of the risks to seniors of drinking, according to Mueller, is that as human bodies age, they lose muscle mass and their body functions slow down, meaning it takes less alcohol for them to become more intoxicated or suffer other ill effects, such as bone loss or cerebral atrophy.
“Where you would have been able to drink four beers without a problem when you were younger, now one and a half or two beers can get you really, really buzzed out,” said Mueller. “So many people go to events and say, ‘I’m only going to have a drink … or two,’ but it is enough to impair their driving.”
Another problem Mueller identified is that alcohol often “does a double-whammy” as it interacts with medication, which older people may be taking a significant amount of, depending on their health.
More issues arise when older people experience stress, such as from adult children moving back in with them, or loss, such as the death of a close friend. Mueller said those situations can drive seniors to begin drinking too much “to take the edge off.”
But Mueller cautioned that she is not trying to stamp out drinking among seniors altogether. She argued that someone who is “a normal drinker” should be allowed to gather with friends, even in a retirement home or an assisted living facility, for a drink as part of a social activity every week or so.
“I don’t see any reason we can’t have that happen in homes, in assisted living and that sort of thing, as long as they have one drink and it’s ordered by their physician,” said Mueller, arguing that having that level of social normalcy can help seniors cope with not living independently anymore.
MaryAnn VandeCastle, chairwoman of the commission, responded, “Aren’t there quite a few people, though, who can’t just have one drink?”
“Yes,” Mueller replied. “And that’s why … it has to be a controlled condition, and it’s probably way ahead of its time to do that. But you know, you can bring in as many people to entertain, and kids and all that, and it’s nothing like the company of your close friends.”
Mueller said she has counseled seniors who have ended up dying from alcohol abuse, as well as those whose alcoholism led them to stop taking care of themselves. But she warned that simply demanding that alcoholics quit drinking is not constructive.
“One of the realistic things that you need to look at is not sobriety for these people, but harm reduction,” said Mueller. She said trying to stop seniors from drinking altogether, especially if they have grown dependent on it, “takes away their individuality at a time when so much more is being taken away.”
Mueller’s advice was to treat alcoholism among seniors by trying to limit, rather than outright stop, their drinking, as well as to get them to undergo a medical exam that could determine what effects the disease is having on their bodies and how alcohol is interacting with medications they are taking. Home visits are also effective, she said, because seniors often feel most comfortable inside their own homes.
Most of all, Mueller said, seniors with problems need to feel like they have options, as opposed to “just going in there and saying, ‘Well, you need to do this.’”
“What are we missing in Juneau, in terms of resources?” VandeCastle asked.
Mueller replied, “We are missing senior treatment.” She said treating seniors as part of the general population does not offer a focus on their specific issues, and that seniors who need treatment may feel alienated by fellow patients with illegal drug problems or who use profane language.
One of the ideas Mueller brought to the commission was a “brown bag” lunch for seniors to discuss their health issues and medication and receive guidance from expert volunteers. VandeCastle suggested that an event like that could be held twice a year.
Loretta Bevegni, another member of the commission, said the city itself should get involved.
“They need monetary help from the city,” said Bevegni of the seniors. “We’re getting a lot of money from the tourist industry in six months. Well, for goodness sakes, use it for the benefit of the people.”
The commission also discussed the idea of working with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which serves the region’s Native population.
“It’s always good to have as many people on your side as you can,” Mueller said.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.