Drinking Without Gusto

THE beer ads show virile young men on beaches or beside clear mountain streams, surrounded by beautiful young women. They never show gray-haired men and women drinking alone in shade-drawn apartments. Yet the lonely older drinker is an all-too-typical customer of alcohol.

It has been estimated that four million Americans over the age of 65 - 1 out of 8 - are alcoholics. A recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons found that 70 percent of all hospital admissions within this age group are ``alcohol-related.''

The economic cost comes to around $60 billion a year. But the cost in wasted life can never be calculated.

It is intolerable that, for the 1 out of 8 older Americans, the illusion of ``social'' drinking, of ``moderate'' drinking should end in what one counselor describes as a cycle of shame, guilt, and depression. It is intolerable that the gift of life should shrivel to a perpetual hangover.

The myth of the happy young drinker is debunked by the mercilessly regular association of drinking with traffic fatalities, along with spouse abuse and other violent crimes.

But with what extra savagery the brightly colored fantasy of youthful partyers ``having a blast'' is mocked by the black-and-white reality of solitary figures, joylessly drinking themselves into oblivion day after day through the so-called golden years.

Now that statisticians have discovered the older alcoholic, both federal and state programs are being initiated, often through the auspices of senior-citizen housing, with the intent of bring these sad drinkers out of their secret darkness. Any rescue operations must be welcomed if they concentrate on helping to restore the full dignity and the full possibilities of later life.

The cautionary portrait of the older alcoholic could be held up, as it were, next to those beer ads, making a sobering, competing statement to the young and the tempted who are always being told, ``You only go around once.'' Such a stark contrast could silence the foamy babble about gusto.

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