Editor's note: Last names of people quoted in this story have been withheld to respect the privacy of those recovering from addictions.
By Kristy MacKaben
For the Mirror
The day before Richard C., 62, of Altoona stopped drinking he landed in jail and was charged with reckless endangerment and driving under the influence.
He was 42 at the time and he had to make a choice: quit drinking or go to jail.
"I had been drinking every day solidly for five years. I started drinking when I was 14. It was learning how to live without drinking," Richard said.
He lived in a halfway house in Altoona, then joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he has been sober for 20 years. He now serves as chairman of Alcoholics Anonymous for Blair and Bedford counties.
Richard is not alone in his struggle with alcoholism. Many seniors have wrestled with the disease for decades, and others are just now realizing they have a problem.
According to www.seniorsinsobriety.org, alcoholism affects 10 percent of people older than 60 that percentage and is increasing.
"It is often unrecognized, misdiagnosed and mismanaged and constitutes a growing public health problem worldwide," the Seniors in Sobriety website states.
The website attributes the phenomenon to longer life expectancies, an aging population and a greater recognition of alcoholism among seniors.
"I think it's a growing problem with the elderly, but it's underreported," said Denis Navarro, a psychologist for Altoona Regional Health System's Behavioral Health Services. "I think it's a serious problem."
Signs of a problem
Signs of alcoholism often are easier to spot in younger people. They drive drunk, get in trouble with the law or party too much.
Everyone in town knew Kendall McArthur, 55, of Altoona had problems with alcohol. There was no denying his addiction.
"I would drink and black out, and I would wake up with stuff that wasn't mine.
"I even put myself on the street, and I didn't have a place to live. That's when it starts getting serious," said McArthur, who has been sober for 13 years.
McArthur was often in trouble with the law, but some people show less obvious signs of alcoholism. If you're unable to turn away from a drink, you most likely have a problem, Richard said. Then, alcohol is ruling your life.
Richard remembers a time when he only thought about when, where and how he would buy his next drink.
"Alcohol becomes a priority. You always make sure you have enough in the house, always make sure you have enough money to buy it if you're out on the town," Richard said.
Alcohol often damages relationships, careers and health.
Sometimes seniors' drinking problems are not noticed or acknowledged because family members or friends don't want to intrude or make an effort to help the person change, Navarro said.
"It may be 'Well. Grandpa gets drunk every night, but he's old, so who cares,'" Navarro said.
"You've got the baby boomers and there may have been more of an acceptance of alcohol and other substances. Denial is one of the main mechanisms of substance abuse."
Signs of a drinking problem can be physical and emotional, Navarro said. The person may become accident-prone, or he or she might be depressed, lonely or confused.
"They might get confused or they might not function on a daily basis," Navarro said. Drinking alcohol is especially troubling in seniors, who might be on a variety of medications.
"The interactions of alcohol, prescriptions and over-the-counter medications is a serious problem," Navarro said.
Seniors also don't metabolize alcohol as well as younger people.
"The impact can be more severe," Navarro said.
Although alcoholism might not run in the family, seniors might turn to alcohol when their lives change, such as after retiring or losing a spouse. Medications might act as a depressant, so seniors might look to alcohol, which complicates the situation even more.
"It's kind of sad to see people drift like that," Navarro said. "You're never too old to be treated."
Where to turn
When people realize they have a problem, they can turn to rehabilitation centers, such as Cove Forge in Williamsburg, Home Nursing Agency or Pyramid Healthcare, both in Altoona and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Blair Senior Services will also help seniors locate a resources and Altoona Regional Health System has an access center where people can seek help by calling 889-2141.
After finding help, alcoholics begin the recovery process.
Tammy, 48, of Altoona, often answers the Alcoholics Anonymous Hotline.
"I do talk to seniors. We get all ages and stages of life. Most of them are looking for someone to talk to, to keep them from picking up a drink," Tammy said. She often speaks to people who have hit rock bottom.
"Everyone has a different bottom. Typically what happens is people know when their life gets totally unmanageable, uncontrollable. The pain gets greater than the gain for alcohol. That's why someone would call a hotline or seek out a meeting," Tammy said.
McArthur, who turned his life around on June 15, 1998, said, "I was defeating myself. I prayed for all the wreckage of the past to go away. Life is tremendously better."
Since he stopped drinking, McArthur has a place to live and he's gotten back in touch with his 30-year-old daughter who lives in Utah.
"Everybody saw me in the gutter - drunk. I'm glad they see me sober now.