Keeping an elderly parent away from the bottle is sad but necessary. Here’s how to go about helping your mother (or father) if she (or he) is drinking too much alcohol.
Maybe your mother was never a drinker until your father died, when she began nursing a glass of wine at night. Now she drinks three glasses most days beginning in the afternoon.
Or your mother might have become more sensitive to alcohol with age, and she falls when she has her usual cocktail.
You may have missed the signs for some time. After all, shaky hands and forgetfulness could be normal symptoms of aging. Or you might be tempted to think, “Let her enjoy herself. At this point in life, it doesn’t really matter.”
The trouble is that drinking too much alcohol will eventually cause her pain and possibly shorten her life. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that people over age 65 consume a maximum of seven alcoholic drinks a week and no more than three drinks on any one day. But many seniors need to drink less alcohol or none at all.
Drinking too much alcohol can aggravate osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and ulcers. Most American seniors are taking medications; often they’re taking several. A long list of meds interact badly with alcohol. The list includes OTC painkillers and heartburn remedies, and prescriptions for anxiety, arthritis, depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. You can see the list here.
Your mother may think it’s okay to take the medication in the morning and drink that night; not true. Medication lingers in the body. To know how long, you need to look up the “half-life” of the medication. It takes about five times (not twice) the half-life before your body is free of the drug.
The fact that your mother is drinking daily doesn’t mean she has a drinking problem. It’s also true that she could have a problem even if she doesn’t drink every day. Drinking to cope with loneliness, boredom, anxiety, or depression can easily get out of hand. The danger signs: hiding drinking or lying about it, getting hurt or harming others when drinking, and drinking even though she has medical reasons not to and is risking her health.
Before speaking up with your mother, you may wish to consult an alcoholism counselor, psychologist, minister, or geriatric social worker. You’ll want to bring a list of the prescribed and OTC drugs she’s taking, and notes on how her drinking is affecting her health, daily life, and the people around her. Also, bring a list of family members, friends, or doctors who might help. You may decide that your mother is more likely to listen to her minister or best friend than her child.
If you do approach your mother for a conversation, choose a time when she is normally sober. Be gentle and loving — don’t make it a dramatic confrontation. Also, don’t bother pouring her alcohol down the sink. Your mother will most likely have ways to stock up again. Don’t bring up painful events involving alcohol from the distant past: stick with current incidents. Avoid the words “alcoholic” or “addiction” if they’ll provoke an argument or shame.
You may need to have several short conversations, pacing them out over weeks. But don’t treat your mother as if she was a child. Be specific and direct. Say, “I saw that you drank almost a full bottle of wine on Friday night, and I’m worried. You looked pretty unsteady when you left. Is there something else we can do to help you feel better?”
If she seems open to listening, it’s possible that her tolerance for alcohol has changed and she simply hasn’t figured out how to adapt. Talk over options. She can make sure to eat at the same time and drink other liquids.
If she’s fallen into drinking through companions, suggest that she arrange to meet those friends for another activity — a walk in the park, rather than dinner. She can decide to limit her drinking to the weekends or certain events.
On the other hand, you may meet denial, anger, or other kinds of resistance. Don’t despair — you’ve planted a seed.
She might say, “It’s just a phase. I’m only drinking more now because I’m depressed over (a death, retirement, or illness).” Remind her that alcohol is a depressant, that drinking too much ultimately lowers her mood.
If you hear, “Leave me alone, it’s none of your business,” gently say that you care about her, and that’s why you’re bringing it up.
If you hear, “My doctor says it’s okay,” ask if the doctor knows exactly how much she drinks and her prescriptions. Offer to talk to her doctor.
If you hear, “It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares if I live or die anyway,” state that you do care and so do others who will help her.
She might say, “I just drink because I’m lonely. There’s nothing to do once you get old.” Remind her of her pleasures and that the world will expand once she stops drinking. She might want to try Alcoholics Anonymous, where she’ll have a sponsor and may make friends. Offer to drive her to a meeting or recruit another older person who attends. She may need help finding other activities.
If her drinking has become dangerous enough that she’ll need medical treatment to stop, discuss options. Some centers offer daytime outpatient care. If it does seem like she may need detox, show her a brochure of a cheerful, campus-like environment and perhaps give her an opportunity to visit or talk to other recovered patients. Promise to watch the house and water the plants and pay bills in her absence.
April 02, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN