“I’ll have another.”

When your aging mom or dad orders another scotch or glass of wine, you might not think anything of it. But do you know when enough is too much?

It’s common to see older adults kick back and sip on their favorite beverage during family events, social outings or after a long day. Unfortunately, all too often the warning signs of a potential drinking problem among the elderly often go overlooked or unnoticed.

We live in a society that promotes the heavy use of alcohol, especially when it comes to stress. If you want to relax, you should have a drink; if you want to sleep, you should have a drink’ – by the way, these are things you should not do.

Nicholas Pace
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. board member and professor at the New York University School of Medicine

Over the last decade, researchers have been taking a closer look at alcohol trends among those over the age of 65. Studies show that roughly 17 percent of people suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD) during their golden years. With drinking problems among seniors growing at an alarming rate, communities across the nation are developing preventative programs to help raise awareness. From specialized treatment facilities to support groups tailored to the needs of older adults, there are countless recovery options available.

If you suspect your mom or dad is suffering from an alcohol problem, it’s time to speak up. The longer you try to ignore or rationalize a person’s dangerous drinking habits, the greater the risk. Find alcoholism resources close to home and learn more about how you help make a loved one’s golden years their best years.

Signs of Alcoholism in Elderly Parents

As people age, they are often hesitant to give up their independence or ask for help. This can make it challenging to detect a problem, such as alcoholism. When adult children visit their parents’ home, they may try to be discrete about their drinking or even go as far as hiding liquor, wine or beer bottles. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of any symptoms of alcoholism among this population.

People are really good at redefining things. They say, ‘I don’t have a problem, I just like to drink.’ Or, ‘I’m a big guy, I can handle it.’

Stephan Arndt
Professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa and Director of the Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation

There are both physical and emotional signs of alcoholism in elderly parents that you can watch out for. These include:

  • Sudden changes in behavior, such as becoming irritable or aggressive
  • Restlessness, insomnia or other troubles related to sleep
  • Unexplained bruises and cuts on the arms or legs
  • Isolation from family, friends and hobbies
  • Strong smell of alcohol on breath, clothes or skin
  • Memory trouble
  • Lack of coordination

It can be frightening to watch your elderly parent succumb to the slippery slope of alcohol dependency. You may start to feel a sense of guilt and question what you could have done to prevent their behavior. However, it’s important to not take the blame for your mom or dad’s actions. Ultimately though, your parent’s sobriety and abstinence is their choice alone. As their child, the best thing you can do is offer your love and support during the recovery process.

Talking to Your Elderly Parent About Alcohol Abuse

Make sure you take time to prepare and gather your thoughts before approaching a parent about their alcohol consumption. Jot down specific instances in which their drinking put themselves or those around them at risk. These examples may include driving while under the influence, an injury caused by the effects of alcohol or worsening health conditions.

During the discussion with your mom or dad, stay on message and remain patient. Remember, conversations are a two-way road, so be sure to give them the opportunity to express their feelings. If you’re concerned that things will get off topic or become a heated discussion, request help from an alcohol counselor. These professionals can act as a mediator and help facilitate healthy, productive conversations about your concerns.

If your elderly parent refuses to seek help right away, try not to get upset or angry with them. Sometimes older adults are in denial about their drinking habits and it can take time for them to come around. Your continued support and encouragement can help push them to quit drinking.

Helping Your Aging Parent Recover from Alcoholism

It can be challenging to get an older adult to acknowledge they have a drinking problem and admit they need help. They may be concerned about the stigma associated with alcoholism and worry about what family members and friends will think. Age is another factor that often influences a parent’s decision to refuse treatment. Elderly adults typically think they’re too old for rehab and are apprehensive about whether or not they should put forth the effort to recover.

There’s this lore, this belief, that as people get older they become less treatable. But there’s a large body of literature saying that the outcomes are as good with older adults. They’re not hopeless. This may be just the time to get them treatment.

Paul Sacco
Assistant professor of social work at the University of Maryland in Baltimore

Once your parent decides to get the help they need and deserve, it’s important they have a strong support system to motivate them through the good times and the bad. Start by researching rehab facilities with your mom or dad and talk about which recovery program features are most important to them. They may prefer certain amenities or want to participate in specialized types of therapies.

Other ways you can help your parent during the treatment and recovery process include:

  • Calling or visiting them in the rehab facility
  • Attending family support group meetings together
  • Taking part in alcohol counseling sessions to learn how to encourage sober habits
  • Making an alcohol-free environment for them when they come home
  • Finding new hobbies and activities to participate in together
  • Providing a shoulder to lean on or ear to listen when they’re in need

Recovering from alcoholism is a journey. Remember, taking it one day at a time will help your elderly parent get back on their feet at their own pace. Ready to dive right in? Find alcoholism resources here and learn more about helping your parent get and stay sober.

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