Rhoda struggled with alcohol for much of her youth. She’d successfully managed to stop drinking before starting a family, and it had been decades since she’d gone on a drinking binge. But after her beloved husband died, Rhoda fell into a depression. Grief washed over her and, now in her mid-sixties, she started reaching for the bottle to dull the pain, her usual pre-dinner drink turning into 4 or 5 glasses. Despite noticing her increased clumsiness and forgetfulness, Rhoda’s family didn’t understand the depths of the problem, or her history with alcohol. They assumed she just needed time to cope with her husband’s passing, and surely a few extra drinks wouldn’t hurt.
Many older adults suffer from alcoholism in secret, while their family members and doctors remain in the dark. Perhaps you’ve noticed great aunt Pearl knocking back a few too many scotches whenever you visit, or grandpa repeatedly falling asleep after his nightly whiskey—it’s surprisingly easy to assume that, rather than battling an addiction, they’re simply relaxing with a drink. Even the most well-intentioned family members may feel inclined to let their aging parent off the hook when it comes to drinking. It’s easy to think, “What’s the harm in an extra drink here and there if it makes things a little easier for them?”
How to Spot Alcohol Addiction in Your Aging Loved One
When left untreated, alcohol addiction can have serious consequences for older adults. And caregivers have a particularly challenging task since it’s usually quite tough to spot this addiction in your aging loved one. The symptoms of alcoholism frequently overlap with more prevalent—and socially acceptable—health issues. It can be easy to assume they’re struggling with an illness or the general effects of aging. Alcohol addiction is often our last guess as to the disease our aging loved one is battling.
And yet, up to 17% of older adults are battling some form of substance abuse, and are now being admitted to hospitals for alcohol-related issues as often as they are for heart problems. Being on the lookout for these early warning signs can help your loved one get treatment before it’s too late.
- Confusion or memory loss: Increased forgetfulness and hallucinations are often seen as signs of old age or dementia, but can also be caused by alcoholism.
- Depression or isolation: Suffering from depression can trigger your loved one to start drinking, or be a side effect of it, leading to altered sleep patterns and possibly isolation.
- Emotional crisis: An addiction is often sparked by an emotional crisis, like the death of a spouse, family member, or close friend.
- Past history: Older adults with a history of alcoholism in their youth are more likely to start using again later in life. Adult children can have a hard time if they don’t know their parent’s history. And past alcoholism is something that a parent is likely to have avoided sharing with their child due to shame. Try asking your parent’s friends and older siblings about any past struggles if you suspect a current battle with alcohol.
- Secretive drinking: Feelings of shame, or a fear of judgment, can drive older adults to drink in private. It’s also a way to hide the problem from others. Caregivers can spot this through careful observation of their aging parent throughout the day and night. Notice any odd behavior like retreating to their bedroom during the day, and keep an eye out for bottles stashed around their home.
- Change in appearance: Physical signs include reddening around the nose from broken capillaries, yellowing of the skin from liver problems, a paler complexion, and dry skin and hair. Rapid aging and weight fluctuation can also be a result of alcoholism.
- Slurred speech: While this is a well-known effect of alcohol, it’s all too easy to mistake slurred speech in older adults for any number of things such as a stroke, dementia, or just a facet of the aging process. To avoid confusion, take note of any accompanying behaviors that may point to alcohol use when your loved one begins to slur their speech.
Helping Older Adults Recover from Alcoholism
Alcoholism is even more damaging to older adults than to young people because of the fragility of their bodies. If your aging loved one is coping with alcoholism, they risk having their liver irrevocably damaged, the worsening of other illnesses, or suffering from serious, life-altering falls. As a caregiver, try to be aware of your own potential biases that may get in the way of seeing the reality of your loved one’s situation.
Because it’s so much more difficult to spot alcohol addiction in older adults, caregivers who have their own feelings in check can get a correct diagnosis faster. Getting treatment for your loved one, meanwhile, can prevent further harm to their body, and help them regain their emotional well-being.
Find out If They Have a Problem
Alcoholism is underdiagnosed in older adults partly because the symptoms are easily mistaken for other illnesses, or as normal side effects of getting older. And it’s typically more acceptable to struggle with alcohol as a rash, young person than as an older adult—we usually don’t want to see our elders as alcoholics. Many family members find it difficult to accept that their aging parent has an addiction. It can feel embarrassing, shameful, and scary.
When trying to find out whether your aging loved one has a problem with alcohol, don’t let your own feelings prevent you from seeing the truth. Observe your loved one’s behavior around alcohol, while ruling out other illnesses that might be causing similar symptoms. Ask them gentle questions about their relationship to alcohol—and always offer unconditional love and compassion when speaking to your aging loved one.
Watch out for Withdrawal Symptoms
An alcohol addiction can become more apparent—and more dangerous—during a recovery process. If your loved one suffers a hip fracture, for instance, a short hospital stay can cause serious withdrawal symptoms dangerous to their health. If doctors and family members aren’t aware of the addiction, they may not realize the older adult is not only suffering from the injury, but also from alcohol withdrawal. This misunderstanding can slow the recovery process and cause additional health problems.
If your loved one is in a situation where they can’t access alcohol, take note of their physical and emotional reactions. If they seem uncharacteristically stressed, or are suffering from unusual aches and pains, share your concerns with their doctor immediately. Going through alcohol withdrawal can seriously hinder their recovery, and put unnecessary stress on the body.
Seek Treatment That’s Right for Them
If you believe your loved one has a problem with alcohol, rest assured that help is out there—the Bay Area offers a range of treatment centers available to support their recovery. Day programs can be a good fit for older adults who acknowledge they have a problem and want to get help. Support groups for older adults struggling with alcohol can also be invaluable resources, and give your loved one much-needed empathy and moral support.
Residential treatment programs, meanwhile, offer round-the-clock care: especially for serious addictions, they provide a medically supervised safe space for them to work through a withdrawal. One-on-one therapy can also be a good start for older adults who might not be ready to admit they have a problem. And if your loved one refuses to get help, you can always contact a local treatment center to facilitate an intervention.
Located in the San Francisco Bay, Alta Mira offers a beautiful space for older adults struggling with alcohol to recover in a relaxing environment. They offer compassionate care through residential programs, outpatient services, and counseling for both patients and family members. This is ideal for older adults living in San Francisco and looking to stay close to home while healing from their addiction.
Address: 125 Bulkley Avenue, Sausalito, California, 94965
Phone: (415) 332-1350
Email: Contact form
This Berkeley-based treatment center provides older adults with a free evaluation to determine which services will be most beneficial to them. With both residential and outpatient programs, as well as friendly staff and addiction specialists on hand, New Bridge Foundation is a welcoming place for people of all ages to recover. They also facilitate interventions, so keep them in mind if your aging loved one is struggling to admit they have a problem.
Address: 2323 Hearst Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709
Phone: (510) 548-7270
Led by Dr. David Burke, New Start Recovery Solutions has services located throughout California including Sacramento, San Ramon, San Jose, Fresno, and Los Gatos. They offer medication-managed detox and residential treatment, in addition to intensive outpatient treatment. The center also facilitates family interventions and ongoing support groups for family members of addicts. This is a great place for your loved one to get treatment, especially if your whole family is willing to be involved.
Address: 1925 South Winchester Blvd Suite 204 Campbell, CA 95008
Phone: (530) 419-5755
Alcohol addiction at any age can be physically and emotionally trying for both the sufferer and those close to them. As a caregiver, providing empathy and compassion to your loved one can offer a safe space for them to open up and accept help. If your loved one is abusing alcohol, it means that they are in deep pain and suffering—now more than ever they need your care and affection.
Family members can offer support by acknowledging the problem, notifying doctors, and seeking treatment for their loved one. Approaching the recovery process with unconditional love and acceptance—as opposed to fear and shame—can create a nurturing foundation for an aging adult during this challenging time. Recovery from an alcohol addiction is never easy, but with ongoing guidance from a network of caring family and friends, it’s possible for your loved one to reclaim their health, and start living their life from a place of self-care.
If you’re unsure how to help your aging loved one through a difficult time, Institute on Aging offers a range of supportive services, programs, and online resources. Contact us today to learn more.