WASHINGTON -- Alcoholism is a "serious concern" for about 2.5 million elderly Americans, according to a recent report by the House subcommittee on health and long-term care, and until now the problem has been ignored by policy makers.
But yesterday the subcommittee held the nation's first hearing on the problem.
Among the witnesses who testified were the Rev. Joseph Martin, a Catholic priest and recovering alcoholic who runs Ashley House, a treatment center in Havre de Grace, Md.
Also testifying was Michael Deaver, a deputy White House chief of staff in the Reagan administration who credits his sobriety during the past six years to a stay at Ashley House.
"Alcoholism among the elderly is all but unknown to the outside world," Father Martin told the subcommittee of the House Select Committee on Aging.
But the problem is growing because "people are living longer now, and age brings special problems" that contribute to alcohol abuse, he said.
As many as 70 percent of elderly hospitalizations in 1991 were for alcohol-related problems, and up to 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol-related problems, according to the subcommittee report.
Widowers over 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the nation. And in 1990, the cost of alcohol-related hospital care for the elderly was estimated at up to $60 billion, the report said.
"Alcohol is the drug of choice among the elderly, yet the nation lacks a comprehensive plan to deal with the problem," said Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Ohio, who chairs the subcommittee.
Father Martin said many people do not seriously abuse alcohol until they begin experiencing problems associated with aging.
The loss of a spouse commonly contributes to the beginning of alcohol abuse, he said. Older people often lose family members and friends, and may turn to alcohol to deaden their loneliness.
Physical decline and boredom associated with retirement also contribute to excess drinking, Father Martin said.
Older people also experience a drop in their tolerance for alcohol, which can exacerbate the problem, he said. And complications can arise with prescription drugs.
Father Martin and other witnesses accused the federal government of denying the problem of alcoholism among the elderly, much as alcoholics tend to deny that they have a drinking problem.
All of the witnesses agreed that more federal dollars should go to alcohol abuse programs.
Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., a member of the subcommittee, pointed out that the federal government spends $11 billion annually on the highly publicized War on Drugs, but only $200 million on programs dealing with alcohol abuse.
Mr. Deaver said that "for some reason, [the government is] fixated on the criminal justice part of this problem."
Seventy percent of federal funding for fighting substance abuse goes to "sniffer dogs and [Drug Enforcement Agency] agents . . . [and] if we're lucky, 30 percent will go to" treatment and education, he said.
He said 70 percent of such funds should be spent on treatment and on educating young people.
Improved health insurance coverage for alcohol-related problems, including Medicare and Medicaid coverage, is also needed, Father Martin and other witnesses said. "That whole insurance thing is a fright," the priest said.
Many people familiar with the disease of alcoholism believe treatment plans should be open-ended, said Father Martin, who underwent seven months of treatment for his drinking problem.
"How any insurer can say it will pay for [only] seven days is insanity," he said.