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Is Your Aging Parent Addicted To Alcohol Or Drugs?

It’s a widespread problem, not often in the spotlight: an elder who is dependent on drinking or drugs. The sad downward spiral of those aging parents who already face age-related health problems is hastened by the use of habit forming substances.

What Dependency Is Most Common In Older Adults?

Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicate that approximately 20 percent of adults aged 60-64 and around 11 percent over age 65 report current binge drinking. Here at, where we consult with the families of elders, we hear all too often that Mom or Dad drinks heavily every day. The adult children get overwhelmed by the compounded effects of alcohol on their parents’ care needs.

Aging Affects The Response To Alcohol

According to government research, older adults generally experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than when they were younger. This puts older adults at higher risks for falls, car crashes, and other injuries that may result from drinking. Falls are already a large problem associated with aging. Add drinking, and medications that increase fall risk, and you can understand why the adult children or spouses of these elders are stressed with constant worry.

A Real-Life Example

Warren, age 78, was a successful therapist over decades. He was a well educated military veteran, happily married, and step-dad to a successful daughter, Rikki, and her family. Things began to fall apart when he developed back pain. He had surgery and his doctors prescribed prescription pain medication for the aftermath. He took it and quickly grew dependent on it. When the doctors cut him off from continued renewing of his prescription, he turned to alcohol. He drank every day. He had stopped working and grew depressed.

Then the worst happened. His wife had a stroke and was in the process of recovery and therapy. She fell, hit her head at home and died from the fall. Warren’s drinking increased. He could not maintain his house, his life nor meet his own care needs. He had burned through his retirement savings. During the pandemic, Rikki stopped visiting for his and her family’s safety. Warren was very isolated.

The Move

Rikki had to step in to avert Warren dying from self-neglect at home. She got him to agree to move to a small assisted living home in a rural area nearby. His house had deteriorated from failure to maintain it but Rikki found an old family friend who was willing to rent it. This provided Warren with at least some income.

Financial Pressure

Between his military pension, a veteran’s benefit (Aid and Attendance) Social Security, and the rental income, Warren could just meet the cost of the assisted living home. And he no longer had access to alcohol. In effect this was a sort of painful alcohol rehab. He began to show signs of improvement. Then his long-estranged sister stepped in.

Family Reunity?

Warren had one sister, his only other family besides Rikki and her husband and kids. His sister came to visit. Warren, forgetting that he had never trusted her, was happy to see her. He accepted her invitation to come back to their home town in another state. It took the last of his small amount of remaining cash to pay a caregiver to go with him to move to the other state. It remains unclear whether his sister, who had no prior caregiving experience, would find an appropriate assisted living home for Warren. At least in her state, the cost of such care was considerably less expensive.

The Risks

Warren no longer had the capacity to change his will or trust, which was the protection he had put on his house. Despite its deteriorated condition, it was in an expensive area and had considerable worth. Would his sister try to get control over it? Would she take Warren to a lawyer and have the lawyer change the beneficiary of the trust from Rikki to herself? That question remained unanswered. At the very least, he seemed happy to be returning to the town of his birthplace and to be in contact with his sister. What was his sister’s motivation to suddenly show up and assume responsibility for the care of Warren when she had not done so over the years of his slow decline from his former independence? No one but his sister knew the answer. We hope for Warren that his remaining days will be peaceful.

The Need For Closer Supervision Of Elders With Substance Dependency

If you have an aging loved one who is alcohol dependent, know that older people are likely to be much less tolerant of alcohol than a younger person. The risks are many, as they were for Warren: loss of independence, self-neglect, falls, and failure to maintain one’s environment, among others. Family members of older, alcohol addicted adults must watch them more closely as they age. Getting them to agree to an alcohol rehab program is not likely. When possible, moving them to a new environment where alcohol is not available can work, but it requires medical supervision. Withdrawal from alcohol dependency is painful and can lead to serious reactions. Likewise, alcohol overuse combined with many commonly used medications can be dangerous or even deadly.

Guidelines: How Much Is Too Much?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, developed dietary guidelines providing recommendations on what the average American should eat and drink to promote health and disease prevention. The dietary guidelines state that older adults should limit alcohol to 2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women.

The Takeaways

It will be very difficult and unlikely that family can pressure or persuade an aging loved one to stop overusing alcohol when it’s a long time habit. The task at hand for many families is to watch your elder closely, and when or if it seems right, to move them to a supervised living environment. Generally, they can still drink there if they choose to, but perhaps less. When they are still capable of making their own decisions, even bad decisions, family may have no choice but to stay close to them as best they can and observe. Wearable devices can let you and emergency personnel know if they fall. Social contacts and enjoyable activities can reduce stress and consequently, the need for the substances they abuse.

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