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What to Do When a Parent or Loved One Is Alcoholic

Drinking among the elderly may be on the rise as baby boomers enter the retirement age. Virginia Morris, author of the book How to Care for Aging Parents talks to us about the negative effects of even moderate drinking on this age group.


Interview with Virginia Morris


Alcohol abuse among the elderly is an area of growing concern because this population is growing so rapidly, and also because the problem is so often undetected and untreated among the elderly. The statistics suggest that about 10% of the elderly have a problem with drinking, more within institutions and nursing homes. But the statistics are terribly inaccurate at this point because it is a hard thing to get numbers on.


Alcoholism in the elderly is less than in the general population. But, a more serious issue, and less known issue, is that even what is considered "moderate" drinking can be dangerous for an elderly person.


Quite often it is not the drinker, but family and friends who identify the problem. This is a particularly sticky problem when the drinker is your parent. It's a difficult subject to raise with a parent.


As for "late-onset" drinkers, it is thought that these are usually people who drink heavily through their adult years and it is not until retirement, when they face new stresses and have time on their hands, that it becomes full-blown alcoholism.


Alcohol causes or exacerbates problems that are common in old age, such as forgetfulness and confusion, weight loss and nutritional deficiencies, loss of bone density and imbalance which means more falls and fractures and depression. Alcohol abuse among the elderly is often undetected or ignored because they often live alone and are not reporting to jobs where the problem might be evident. Also, because the symptoms of heavy drinking mimic behavior that is associated with old age. Family members often don't want to face the problem.


Alcohol has a more pronounced effect on an elderly person; because the elderly are apt to be taking medications that don't mix with alcohol; and because alcohol causes or exacerbates problems that are common in the elderly.


Watch out for the symptoms and get help.


  • Changes in personality, especially irritability and anger
  • Slurred speech, forgetfulness and confusion
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeping problems
  • Unsteadiness
  • Neglect of personal hygiene and appearance
  • Incontinence


You can start by talking to the person directly or depending upon your relationship, possibly to his doctor. Typically, if the alcoholic doesn't acknowledge the problem, you will need to intervene in some organized way. That means getting the person to sit down with a group of loved ones and some professional and discussing what you have observed and what needs to be done about it.


Tips on what to do:


Don't be an enabler.
Don't protect the person from the effects of drinking.
Talk to the person in a supportive way, not a ombative manner.
Accompany parent to events where alcohol is served.
Seek treatment.


Treatments are just as effective in the elderly as younger people. They include medications, support groups, psychiatric help, behavioral therapy, in-patient rehabilitation. Support groups should be specific to the elderly.


Where to find help:


You can call the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at 1-800-662-HELP, for information and referrals.

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