While alcohol use is on the rise among older adults, it can be hard to spot. Many of the signs resemble common problems of aging. And who wants to think that when Mom stumbles, for instance, it might be because of drink?! There’s a lot of shame associated with drinking, so older adults—especially older women—often hide the activity.
About two-thirds of older adults with drinking problems have been drinking much of their lives. They’ve been getting by, or they may have stopped in middle age, and then relapsed in late life.
The remaining one-third of older adult drinkers with a problem are people who may even have been teetotalers in their youth. Be alert to this. Even if Dad never seemed interested before, alcohol could be his “comfort” now. Loss can make elders particularly susceptible, perhaps following the death of a spouse, or a move to a new living situation. Pain or failing health are other common triggers. Even something as happy as retirement can be a triggering event – removing friendships, identity, and daily routines. With so much idle time, it’s easy to fall into a drinking habit without realizing it. When one drink becomes two or three, it can lead to dependence.
Loss of meaning and purpose are huge culprits
Loneliness and isolation can lead to depression and anxiety. Without social contacts, it’s just too easy to “self-medicate” the emotional pain with alcohol. Older women generally, and men who have lost their partners, are especially vulnerable to drinking in later life.
Signs of a drinking problem
- Unexplained falls and bruises
- Moodiness, irritability
- Poor sleep
- Weight loss
- Changes in appearance and hygiene
- Increased secrecy, hiding bottles
Constructive Ways to Intervene
What are some constructive ways to address this sensitive subject with your loved one?
Engage a professional or a trusted friend. Consider asking your parent’s doctor or a respected friend to initially bring up the subject. Provide the reasons for your concern: slurred speech, unexplained falls or bruises. Be specific in your examples. Your parent will have less face to save with a trusted friend or professional than with their own child.
If you do talk, don’t say “alcoholic.” Even if it’s applicable, this is a loaded term. Tread lightly. A confrontation will just make your relative defensive and could jeopardize your relationship long term. Instead, clear yourself of judgments about what he or she “should” do. Your relative is an adult and has the right to make unwise or unhealthy choices. He or she is doing the best they can, using the coping strategies that are readily available to them.
Open the door. Let them know that you notice some things aren’t working well and that you care. Rather than preach, create an invitation: “I notice you’ve been falling” (or losing weight, or seeming kind of withdrawn). “Are you concerned? Want to talk?” If yes, great. If no, just make it clear you’re available any time.
Casual help. Rediscovering meaning, purpose, and connection is one route to recovery. Separate from a conversation about alcohol, help your loved one explore ways to feel engaged with life, perhaps through involvement with others. Maybe you can go together to a social activity to make the first time easier. Or you might help remove barriers by providing transportation or covering costs.
Formal programs. Older adults also respond well to short-term interventions that address the specific isolation and loneliness of late life. If your loved one shows interest, help him or her find a recovery program that is geared to the needs and concerns of aging.
This article was updated in Jan 2022.