How to Talk to Your Elderly Parents About Their Drinking Habits

May 12, 2016

How to Talk to Your Elderly Parents About Their Drinking Habits

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If your parent was ill, you would do everything you could to help them. But sometimes, helping those closest to us is the hardest. When you recognize the signs that your senior loved one is having an alcohol abuse issue, you may want to talk to them about it, but you might not know how.

If you do think an elder has a drinking problem, it is important to try and help them because 70 percent of all hospitalized older persons and 50 percent of nursing home residents have troubles with their alcohol use. Left untreated, alcohol abuse can worsen many medical conditions, or make medical conditions hard to diagnose. With 83 percent of people over the age of 65 taking prescription medication, mixing their meds with alcohol can end with serious consequences.

Excuses for drinking

Many people have a hard time having these types of tough conversations with older people. If you have thought about bringing it up before, you may have felt you were overstepping your boundaries, or that it wouldn’t make a difference. But ultimately, you may be the one person that can get them the help they need.

Even if your loved older one has been drinking all of their life, they aren’t too old to change. As people age, their tolerance to alcohol decreases. So the amount of alcohol they could handle at an earlier age may affect them more severely—making them more receptive to help.

We have all read the blog articles telling us why a glass of wine a day is good for you, but if your elder loved one has a predisposition for alcoholism, they cannot stop at just one glass. And two beers at age 65, is like drinking 7 beers at age 20.

Before the talk

Before talking to your elder loved one, you may want to consult an alcoholism counselor, psychologist, doctor or minister. They can help you make sure you are looking at the situation objectively and help you come up with options. Older people will trust their doctors without questioning, so it might be better for them to bring the issue to the attention of the elder.

Before you meet, here is some information that you should try to gather:

  • A list of all medications (prescription and over the counter) the senior is taking
  • A list of the doctors that have been visiting
  • A general idea of the current situation including how the drinking is affecting their health, family, social life, finances, etc.
  • A brief life history of the adult, including values and belief system
  • Concerned family member that would be willing to help

During the talk

There are a few things that you should keep in mind while talking to your elder loved one:

  • Don’t talk to your elder when they are drinking.
  • Don’t be confrontational. Instead, be gentle and loving.
  • Avoid stigmatized words such as ‘alcoholic’.
  • Don’t pour alcohol down drains. If they don’t want help, they will just replenish the supply.
  • Talk about the effects of their alcohol use on what they love most. They may not care about themselves, but may be willing to make a change if they know their drinking is affecting their grandchildren.

What to say to possible reactions

Your loved one may say that they are only drinking because of a recent death, or life event. Make sure you explain that alcohol is a depressant and only making the situation worse.

If the older person gets angry or tells you to leave them alone, make sure you remind them that you are only bringing it up because you care about them. If the person is too angry or walks out, try having the conversation at another time.

Some older persons may say that their doctor told them it was okay to drink. If that is the case, you can ask their doctor yourself if they know exactly how much your older loved one is drinking.

Your older loved one may be depressed about being a senior and may feel lonely. Always remind them how much they mean to you and that there is still much life to be lived.

If they are not ready for help

Remember that denial is one the symptoms of alcoholism. They may have been drinking so long that they haven’t actually noticed how bad things are or they may know they need help but are too scared to get it. Unless they are presenting an immediate danger to themselves, you should drop the conversation and bring it up at a later time.

If they aren’t ready for help, do not feel like you have failed them. Even if they don’t know, you have done a very loving and courageous act that may lead to recovery when you least expect it.

If they are ready for help

If they are ready for help, be supportive and listen to them. You can help them find a physician to get a professional opinion on the state of their alcohol usage. Depending on the severity, the doctor will help them find the right treatment.

If your older loved one needs inpatient or outpatient help, check with their insurance provider and make sure that it will be covered. If they have to participate in an inpatient program, assure them that you will look after the house, watch their pets, or anything else you can do to help the older person feel comfortable about going to get help.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has helped millions of people achieve sobriety and may be an option for your loved one. If looking for an AA program, look for one that is for older persons so they will feel comfortable.

Talking to an older person about their drinking problem can be hard, but you may be the first step to help them recover and get them the help they need.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How prevalent is addiction in the elderly community?

Findings from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show that 20-30 percent of people ages 75 to 85 have experienced drinking problems and, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, 3.6 percent of adults aged 60 to 64 report using an illicit drug.

If you are concerned that your loved one has an addiction problem consider these drug treatment programs for seniors.

See All Answers »

How prevalent is medication abuse in the senior 65+ community?

Persons aged 65 years and older comprise only 13 percent of the population, yet account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription medications in the United States. Older patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term and multiple prescriptions, and some experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper use of medications. Alternatively, those on a fixed income may abuse another person's remaining medication to save money. 

Prescription drug abuse in the elderly is more common than you think. If you believe your loved one is addicted to prescription drugs seek help immediately.

See All Answers »

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