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Shedding light on a hidden drink problem

Campaigners are concerned about elderly people turning to the bottle.

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Alcohol-abuse campaigners are using a nationwide awareness day to shed light on the plight of more than 70,000 elderly people suffering from alcoholism.

The Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction is concerned that doctors, nursing-home staff and the public in general are unaware of the scale of the problem.

According to statistics published ahead of the campaign day on Thursday, 73,000 people aged 65 and over suffer from the consequences of alcohol abuse.

The institute says people too often turn a blind eye to alcohol abuse among the over 65s. It wants to "lift the veil" on a subject which it believes is still largely taboo.

Those behind the campaign say their aim is not to "deprive elderly people of the pleasure of a glass of wine", but to stop alcohol from being used as a "kind of self-medication" to overcome chronic pain or to deal with loneliness.

On the rise?

Institute spokeswoman Janine Messerli told swissinfo there were "some indications" that alcohol abuse among the elderly was "a growing problem".

"With demographic changes, we are going to have an increasing number of elderly people, so this is likely to become more of an issue," she said.

One-third of the estimated 73,000 elderly alcoholics are thought to have turned to the bottle after retirement.

"These people turn to alcohol when they stop working or when, for example, their husband or wife dies. For them, social isolation is an issue," said Messerli.

She added that it was more difficult to diagnose alcoholism in elderly people because they often live alone and are as a result "less visible" in society.

Undetected

The institute is keen to stress that cases of alcoholism can go unnoticed for long periods of time.

Messerli said experts were "often not aware that alcohol-related problems are an issue with the elderly".

"Sometimes people think it's not worth doing anything because we are talking about people who are already old and they should be allowed to drink. But you really can improve someone's quality of life if you set out to tackle the problem."

Institute officials are urging doctors not to dismiss the possibility that elderly patients could be suffering from the consequences of alcohol abuse.

"There is definitely room for improvement here. It is important to ask the right questions... to discover whether there might be an alcohol-related problem when an elderly person talks about his or her symptoms," said Messerli.

"The same applies in old-people's homes, where staff need to [recognise] that there are elderly people with alcohol problems."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

It is estimated that around 73,000 elderly people in Switzerland are alcoholics.
Two-thirds of these people are thought to have suffered from drink problems during their working lives, while the remaining third are believed to have turned to the bottle after retirement.

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