A society in denial

February 10, 1992

The idea of Grandma boozing it up may seem unthinkable. But a new report by a U.S. House subcommittee puts the lie to the image of little old ladies spending their days knitting and little old men puttering in the garden. The report on health and long-term care found that alcoholism is a problem for 2.5 million elderly Americans.

Alcohol dependency in later years is partly a result of problems associated with aging: loneliness, death of a spouse or friends, physical decline and just plain boredom. The price paid by society is exorbitant -- $60 billion in alcohol-related hospital care, not to mention the immeasurable loss of human potential and dignity. Advocates for the elderly pointed out at a hearing last Tuesday that policy-makers have all but ignored alcoholism among the elderly.

Alcoholism crosses age, racial, ethnic, gender and religious lines. From babies with fetal alcohol syndrome to senior citizens, teen-agers, drunk drivers and adult children of alcoholics -- the nation is littered with the victims of alcohol abuse.

We pay a high price for it -- in police protection, jails, drunk-driving accidents, spouse and child abuse. Yet, like an alcoholic, we continue to insist there is no problem. Like an alcoholic family, we have our "enablers" -- advertisers who sell sexy images of drinking and good times -- and a government whose drug war virtually ignores the No. 1 substance-abuse problem in the nation.

While there are some 30,000 drug-related deaths in this country every year, there are 10 times as many alcohol-related deaths -- some 300,000 a year. Moreover, 70 percent of government-financed substance-abuse dollars are spent on law enforcement; only $3 out of every $10 goes for education and treatment.

The recession has made things worse. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, for example, has slashed $8 million in alcohol-treatment money. Meanwhile, at the local level, support services like senior centers and substance abuse programs, once considered the meat of local government, are being discarded as fat.

The House report should prod a society in denial into taking the first step toward recovery -- admitting it has a problem. The next step is to reassess priorities and start focusing on alcohol abuse by pumping a larger portion of substance-abuse money into education and treatment programs.

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