Ellen: I was drinking about a liter of wine a day. And I couldn't wait until the Thursday paper, The Washington Post, came so I could see who had jug wine on sale that weekend and where I could get the best buy on red wine.
Narrator: At age 74, Ellen developed a drinking problem. It started when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Ellen: I realized I had a drinking problem after my diagnosis of cancer 5 years ago. I think it was the shock of having cancer, the anxiety concerned with "am I cured or am I going to continue to have this battle?"
Dr. Willenbring: The diagnosis of a devastating condition, particularly one associated with pain but not necessarily, can be easily a trigger for the development of a drinking problem, and people will turn to alcohol for solace.
Narrator: Dr. Mark Willenbring, an addiction psychiatrist, says there are certain life events that can trigger drinking problems in older adults.
Dr. Willenbring: One is retirement. We see this very often in men where they've probably been a pretty heavy drinker or at least a regular drinker throughout their life, but their drinking was constrained by their job. They didn't drink at work, so they would start drinking after work at 5, or 6, or 7 in the evening. Now you're retired, you don't know what to do with your life. Well, why not start at 3? Why not start at noon? I've seen this over and over again.
A second thing is disability. When people become disabled and they're no longer able to work, they may get some depression and hopelessness. A third problem is pain. People who are already drinkers usually will develop a drinking habit really to help them cope with the pain and disability. A fourth reason people develop problems is because so many older adults have difficulty with sleeping--they have insomnia, they have disrupted sleep. So people will drink to get to sleep. Finally, especially for men, losing a spouse puts them at risk for developing an alcohol dependence problem, and that can develop very rapidly even in people who never had a problem before.
Narrator: Ellen had been a social drinker for most of her life, but it took her awhile to realize that her drinking had crossed the line.
Ellen: I don't think I was aware when I got cancer of the insidiousness of the alcohol habit. I've always felt like I was in control of my behavior. It was not until after the cancer and I began to consume a lot of wine that I realized that I was losing control.
Dr. Willenbring: The early warning signs that you're developing dependence or addiction on drinking are going over limits that you set repeatedly. So you say "Well, tonight I'm only going to have one drink," and you end up having a bottle of wine. The second is a persistent desire to quit or cut down--a struggle, an internal struggle.
Ellen: I didn't think of myself as an addict until I tried to quit, and I realized how dependent I was on alcohol and how hard it was to do without it.
Narrator: Ellen eventually sought treatment for her alcohol addiction and is now in recovery. Her cancer is also in remission. To maintain her sobriety, she says she must remain vigilant.
Ellen: I do not feel cured. I'm subject to relapse and I have to be very careful.