How to Help an Aging Parent Overcome Alcoholism

Retirement brings with it a relaxing of the mind, body and sometimes the senses. As parents enter their twilight years, it may become commonplace to see them have a second glass of wine with dinner or a couple of glasses of scotch before bedtime.

We live in a society that oh so quickly promotes alcohol use to relax or enjoy ourselves, which means seeing older adults relax with alcoholic beverages during social events and family outings has become routine.

But it is essential to know when enough is enough.

Dangers of Alcohol Abuse in the Elderly

Knowing when your parent has begun to experience an alcohol problem or is already amid alcoholism is essential to negate the potential long-term risks and dangers of alcohol abuse.

Long-term alcohol abuse can result in several issues in the elderly.

Some of the most consequential of these health problems can include:

  • Forgetfulness results in missing vital medications.
  • Masking of other severe mental and physical health issues such as signs of heart attacks, depression, Alzheimer’s, and different types of dementia.
  • Alcohol can make the elderly appear confused and forgetful, resulting in their children assuming they have Alzheimer’s disease when they may not.
  • Potentially fatal injuries can arise from already unsteady seniors becoming more unsteady on their feet due to alcohol-induced dizziness.
  • Long term alcohol abuse can also bring on or worsen health conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, ulcers, stroke, liver damage, brain damage, cancer, and immune system disorders. [1]

Seeing the Signs – When to Recognise that a Senior Parent has a Problem with Alcohol

The apparent dangers mentioned above of prolonged drinking in the elderly means it’s essential to recognise the signs and symptoms of a drinking problem.

Unfortunately, the warning signs of potential elderly alcoholism can be ignored or overlooked and often mistaken for something else.

What’s more, advanced age can make the elderly often hesitant to ask for help out of fear of losing their independence. So, children of a reclusive elderly parent may also find it hard to detect alcoholism.

These parents are often discreet about their drinking, hiding bottles of wine, beer or liquor, or evading questions. Being able to spot the signs and symptoms of alcoholism is therefore essential.

The common signs of drinking problems in elderly parents include:

  • Mysterious bruises and cuts
  • Lying about their drinking habits
  • Memory problems or cognitive decline
  • Increased isolation from friends and family
  • Often appearing unsteady or having slurred speech
  • Less, or no, interest in hobbies and regular activities
  • Trouble with coordination which can result in injuries
  • A strong smell of alcohol on the skin, clothes, or breath
  • Often or frequently having more than one drink per day
  • Declining invitations to events where alcohol will not be present
  • No or little interest in personal self-care, care of their home or other responsibilities
  • Drinking to manage their depression, forget their worries, or calm their nerves
  • Sudden and dramatic changes in behaviour; being aggressive, unreasonable, or irritable

How to Support Your Aging Parent with Alcohol Abuse

Once you realise that your parent has a drinking problem, you’ll be wondering how you can help them get over their drinking problem.

The first thing to remember is that you can’t force someone to change, quit, enter rehab or reduce their drinking.

Only they can do that. But the one thing you can do is bring the problem to your parent’s attention.

Those who approach their parents without prior preparation may find themselves at the unfortunate end of their parent’s anger, accusations, or even emotional and physical abuse.

However, these things don’t need to happen if individuals prepare and follow standard guidelines to improve their experience.

First, please remember that unless you are very concerned about violence, having this conversation with your parent is well worth any discomfort that it may bring.

But, if you are worried about violence, you’ll be better off not having the conversation alone.

So, here are some beneficial ways to prepare for a discussion about alcohol:

1. Make sure to sit, prepare and gather your thoughts before the conversation. You don’t want to rush it. Instead, note down specific occasions in which their drinking has affected you or has put themselves or others in danger. You can also note down specific health conditions which could be made worse due to their alcohol use.

2. Establish a time with your parent where you can speak one-on-one (unless violence is a worry).

3. Before you start, remember that the point of the conversation is to let your parent know that you are concerned about them and not to convince them that they have a problem.

4. Carefully consider what you want to say, making sure to come from an air of concern and support.

5. Consider what type of conversation is best. For example, would a series of mini-talks that gradually introduce the possibility of a drinking problem be best? Or would arrange an intervention gives you the best chance of success?

Approaching the Conversation about Your Parents Drinking

As you initiate the conversation with your parent and address the elephant in the room, follow the below for a more sensitive and successful exchange.

  • Only initiate the conversation when none of the participants is intoxicated.
  • From the beginning of the conversation, insist that you are doing this because you care about them. Then, throughout the conversation, continue to reiterate that you are only doing this because you want to protect their well-being.
  • Put into use that list you’ve made about any specific behaviours and incidents that worry you.
  • You’ll want to start the conversation from an I perspective, using phrases such as ‘I am concerned’ or ‘I have noticed,’ avoiding the accusatory ‘You.’ Ensure it is a 2-way conversation so that your parent doesn’t feel cornered or get defensive. You can also do this by asking open-ended questions.
  • Keep on track, don’t escalate the conversation negatively with judgements, personal attacks or demands for why they drink.

Responding to Reactions – When a Senior is Not Ready to Stop Drinking

Don’t be surprised if your parent denies they have a problem, which can be expected at the first conversation. There are some excellent ways to handle this.

Firstly, try to encourage them to agree to have another conversation about their drinking in the future when they feel ready. However, knowing when to drop the issue is an integral part of the process.

After that, unless a senior is in immediate danger of hurting themselves or others, you’ll be best dropping the issue for now. There is next to nothing that anyone can do when someone refuses to stop drinking, whether you’re a family member, friend, or doctor.

This acceptance is essential, so you don’t become too stressed by the issue.

What Resources and Help are Available?

If your wildest dreams have come true and your senior parent is willing to admit they have a problem, you may feel a little stumped about what step to take next. However, there are plenty of avenues of help available to you and your parent; you are not alone.

It may be best to wait until you have received some professional or medical advice before your parents beings their sobriety journey. Waiting for professional advice is essential, as seniors may need to go through potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Therefore, detoxification should also be managed by a trained medical professional.

In contrast, reaching complete sobriety might not be the most sensible or reasonable of outcomes. The National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE) recommends considering a more realistic goal for counselling and treatment to reduce harm and improve the quality of life.

Focussing entirely on abstaining from alcohol may not be the best idea as the final goal of sobriety might not be realistic at that time. [2]

Some of the help available to you and your parents include:

  • Start with a visit to your parents GP, of course with your parent. The doctor can discuss your parents’ problem with them and help them find the best treatment plan. They may offer you treatment at the practice. It can be highly beneficial to accompany your parent to their medical appointments. On their own, they may downplay the extent of their alcohol problems to a medical professional, which could hinder the type of help they receive.
  • The GP may also suggest various assessments and support options best suited to your parent, such as those available from local community alcohol services.
  • Your GP can also point you in the direction of any free local support groups and alcohol counselling that may be best suited to your parent.
  • You can also help your elderly parent by assisting them in finding local support services in your area through the NHS website. [3]