Saturday, December 27, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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There Is Hope And Help For Our `Hidden' Problem

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MORE OLDER PEOPLE are hospitalized for alcohol than for heart problems. Nearly one-fourth of all those hospitalized over age 60 are diagnosed with alcoholism.

Hildegard Leonard, 73, used to wake to drink. A shot of scotch kept her numb and buzzing throughout the day, which she'd spend, usually in her pajamas, watching TV, dozing and waking only to drink again.

She rotated her buying among liquor stores so the salespeople wouldn't think she was alcoholic. She hid her bottles. For days, she wouldn't answer the door, the phone. She'd forget to get dressed, to eat. At tense holiday dinners, she passed notes: "I have nothing to live for. I want to die."

"If someone called me an alcoholic, I would deny it. An alcoholic was someone who was falling down drunk. And I wasn't," she said. "I just kept myself on a nice, even keel. Like taking a tranquilizer."

Leonard, sober for eight years now, was one of America's estimated 3 million older alcoholics. As many as 20 percent of those over 65 have some problem with alcohol, several studies show. But since most of them spend dull, oppressive days alone and isolated, few people think there's a problem.

But there is.

More older people are hospitalized for alcohol than for heart problems. Nearly one-fourth of all those hospitalized over age 60 are diagnosed with alcoholism, with treatment costs as high as $60 billion.

One-quarter of financially strapped Medicare's costs goes to pay

for substance abuse among the elderly. Alcohol is their choice.

With the much larger and much heavier-drinking baby-boom generation 15 years from old age, the hidden problem will only get worse.

"By the year 2030, fully one-third of our population is going to be older adults," said Carol Egan, director of Older Adult Services at Hanley-Hazelden, a drug and alcohol treatment center in West Palm Beach, Fla., and herself a recovering alcoholic. "If we don't start addressing older adult issues like alcoholism now, they'll be plunked right in our lap."

Spokane is one of the few communities to try to bring older alcoholics into treatment. Under what is called the "gatekeeper" program, counselors train postal workers, meter readers and others who come in contact with the elderly to recognize problems with alcohol. Gatekeepers now find four out of every 10 admissions to local substance-abuse programs.

Families, many of whom live miles away, are silent. Raised to respect their elders, they either leave them alone, ignore the problem, don't want to air embarrassing dirty family laundry or are unable to confront it.

Those who do confront it find, usually after a lengthy search, that only a handful of treatment centers care for the elderly, treatment costs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars and Medicare has cut the inpatient care it covers from 28 days to five.

The federal government also ignores the problem, focusing instead on younger people. Research on the elderly gets 2 percent of the addictions budget; only one of the 14 federally funded addiction-research centers is dedicated to studying the elderly.

Two kinds of drinker

Older alcoholics have traditionally been divided into two groups: those who've had a problem all their lives, and those who begin to drink to excess only after retirement or the death of a spouse or out of depression.

Jim Dayton, 64, of Vero Beach, Fla., and John Smith, 75, of Manitou Beach, Mich., were both problem drinkers. But, with time on their hands, they found they cared only about when they could sneak the next drink.

"About the time I retired, I didn't have anything to do. I was just completely lost," Smith said. "So I drank." He checked into motels and drank wine until he passed out.

For Dayton, the problem was the endless rounds of boozy golf and the evening cocktail circuit in his retirement community.

Intervention by their families got both men into treatment. Now, Smith volunteers and spends hours surfing the Internet. Dayton works part time and, with a renewed spiritual life, is active in his church.

But few people ever get into treatment. Researchers estimate only 10 percent of those with alcohol problems ever make it through a center's front door - many coming in when families reach the breaking point during the heavy drinking and the emotional upheaval of the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Because alcoholism is a chronic addictive problem, fully 80 percent of those who do get treatment will relapse, either once, or for good, within one year.

In the face of such odds, Leonard's story, and others like her, offer hope. She was on the verge of joining the 30,000 older Americans who die every year from abusing drugs and alcohol. Instead, she changed her life.

Leonard, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., had always been a social drinker, indulging at parties or sharing a drink with her husband at the end of the day. In 1975, when her mother suffered a stroke and had to be put in a nursing home, Leonard started reaching for a slug of scotch to brace herself before visiting. Then she found a swig once she got home gave her relief. "That's how it started," she said.

Her husband's death in 1987 sent her into a two-year alcoholic haze.

She'd call her daughter, Suzanne Vanderburg, crying no one cared about her or demanding she come fix her a cheese sandwich. Or she'd call her son, Richard, asking why she hadn't seen him in a few days. She lied about drinking. Constantly.

"I never hated her badly enough to disown her," Vanderburg said. "But I came close."

Richard's wife, Carol, was hurt. "First, you want to help them and save their lives," she said. "After a while you start getting angry. Why are they doing this? Don't they love us enough to quit?"

Drinking a fifth of alcohol a day, it didn't matter which kind, Leonard dropped nearly 30 pounds. She was in and out of detox programs. "I wasn't out but six weeks, if it was that long, before I drank again," she said.

Richard found center

Finally, Richard found the Older Adult Recovery Center at Chelsea Community Hospital, one of the handful of treatment centers aimed at the elderly. She went through the six-week program once, then relapsed at her favorite restaurant, Sneaky Pete's. That did it for Richard.

"I just lost it. I said, `We've had enough.' She didn't care about anything, she was so selfish. I didn't want to talk to her anymore. I told her not to call anymore, and I hung up on her," Richard said. "After that, she never drank again."

For Hildie, now she wakes to live.

"When you drink, you feel unworthy, like everyone is better than you. You're all garbled up," she said. "I've got a good life now."

------------------- Resources available -------------------

-- King County Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services and Information referrals, 206-296-7615.

-- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 1-800-622-2255, 12 West 21 St., New York, N.Y., 10010, has information on treatment programs in local areas. Web site is The HOPE line, 1-800-NCA-CALL, can provide intervention counselors in the local area.

-- National Drug and Alcohol Abuse and Treatment Referral line, run by the Center for Substance Abuse and Treatment: 1-800-662-4357 or the 24-hour HELP LINE, 1-800-378-4435.

-- The Alcohol Treatment Referral Hotline: 1-800-ALCOHOL. Web site is

-- Local chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics are listed in area phone books. Web sites: and

-- "How to Talk to An Older Person Who Has a Problem with Alcohol or Medications," and other materials published by Hazelden, call 1-800-I-DO-CARE. Web site:

-- National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, 1-800-729-6686, P.O. Box 2345, Rockville, Md. 20847-2345. Web site:

-- National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, NAATP, 1-717-581-1901, or pager, 1-888-688-0218, has a state and local breakdown of privately run facilities. Web site:

-- "Intervention, How to Help Someone Who Doesn't Want Help," a guide for families and friends of chemically dependent people, by Vernon E. Johnson, the Johnson Institute, 1-800-231-5165, 7205 Ohms Lane, Minneapolis, Minn. 55439-2159. Web site:

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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