There is Always Hope: Supporting Your Aging Parent with Alcohol Dependence

She held you when you hurt yourself and she kissed the pain away. He lifted you up to the sky and you felt as light as a feather. In faded photographs, you see the promise that was you and your parents. Or perhaps it wasn’t like that at all, and your heart was instead divided into two rooms of love and hate by your parent’s alcohol dependence. It isn’t an easy life growing up with addiction, and the neglect or abuse that often accompany that disease. Helping a parent recognize that they have a problem in later years is just as challenging.

There comes a time when there is a role reversal between us and our parents, if we are lucky to have them in our lives as we become older. We become the caregivers and the protectors. We feel as if it is our duty to make sure life in later years is golden for Mom or Dad.

The period after retirement is called “the golden years,” because they are supposed to be some of the best years of a person’s life. For an older parent with alcoholism and their adult children, life looks like insects fossilized in a piece of amber. The family tree has built a thick layer around all of you that isn’t a protection–it’s a trap. Your emotions become entombed by your parent’s alcohol dependence. It may feel that way, but it doesn’t have to stay like that. There is hope for you and your alcoholic parent.

Heal your inner child before you try to parent your parent

In order to help your parent, or parents, you need healing. If you missed out on the nurturing that you needed as a child because one or both of your parents had an addiction, you need to find ways to love yourself and to forgive. It’s okay to feel sad about your experiences with your parent, but you can have a better life! Expressing your emotions is a good start, but that’s not enough. You have to learn what to do with the pain. There is a reason that we have an endless supply of tears. Crying is good, but then you have to stop and ask for help. You are also wounded and deserve to become whole. Adult Children of Alcoholics is one place to start that journey, but there are many other roads.

I decided I would not go to court to have my mother declared incompetent, I would not fight. I put the car in drive and hit the gas. I felt as if I’d jumped off a sinking ship and was in a life raft with my little girl, my face turned away from the horror, rowing, rowing, as fast and as hard as I could in the opposite direction.” ― Kaylie Jones, Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir

Kaylie Jones is the daughter of James Jones, a renowned author who wrote, among others, the National Book Award-winning novel From Here to Eternity. Her mother was Gloria Jones, a beautiful woman who was a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Both of her parents were alcoholics. Kaylie also became an alcoholic, which isn’t uncommon in adult children whose parents struggle with this disease. Studies show that genetic factors are a significant influence in the risk level of an individual becoming an alcoholic. If that is your experience, you can’t help your parent unless you receive help for your own addiction. If you have children of your own, you need to stop the cycle for their sake.

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Alcohol Recovery Is Possible

It never used to be this way

If you had a loving parent who may have been a social drinker but never seemed to have a problem with alcohol, it can be shocking when Mom or Dad turns to the bottle for comfort. Alcohol can become a form of self-medicating when an older person has physical or emotional pain. According to The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “Six to eleven percent of all elderly patients admitted to hospitals exhibit symptoms of alcoholism.”

She only started drinking after my father died.

Grief can turn anyone’s life inside out. The loss of a spouse can lead to intense loneliness and isolation. You are also grieving the death of a parent, but remember, that was your parent’s lover and confidant, friend and life partner. Think about how you would feel if you lost your true love. Now multiply that feeling by decades. It’s even more difficult to recover from a tragic life event as we get older. It’s important to make sure that your parent is given love and support during this difficult time. Their drinking could be temporary, or it could become a habit.

He didn’t know what to do with himself after retirement.

We all look forward to retirement, but sometimes such a drastic life change can cause problems. Relationship issues that were put on the back burner come to the forefront. When you have more time to yourself, you may start to notice how unhappy you are with your life. Even boredom can be an excuse to have another drink, because it’s not like anything else is going to happen today. Urge your parents to stay active, and make sure you maintain an active role in their life. Many elderly parents feel abandoned by their children–because they have been. If you have siblings, get together and make a real effort to fit time for your parents into your busy lives. Stay connected to your parents as they age by reaching out to them–connect over coffee, or use technology to video chat if distance prevents a face-to-face meeting.

Pointing out the elephant in the room and doing it with love

If you’ve grown up with a parent’s alcoholism, you know the signs: your mother or father can’t stop drinking, is secretly drinking, won’t talk about it, or alcohol is impacting their life in a negative way. You may have been powerless to stop it when you were younger, but now you can talk to your parent as an equal. If they won’t listen, you may have to hold an intervention, attend a 12-step group with them, or provide them with resources for treatment in a recovery center.

It can be difficult to diagnose alcohol abuse in an elderly person who may be confused or depressed. Long-term alcoholism can cause Alcohol-Related Dementia (ARD). Drinking could also mask more serious physical and mental health issues, such as depression, Alzheimer’s, or other forms of dementia. A parent who is drinking may forget to take crucial medication for conditions such as diabetes, putting their life at even more risk. If this is the case, you need to have your parent evaluated by a medical professional.

Someone who has been sober could also relapse in later years. If you start to notice a change in your parent’s behavior, it could be the alcohol speaking to you. If they aren’t as willing to visit their grandchildren, don’t want to participate in family events or start to distance themselves, they may be hiding their drinking. Anyone with an addiction can relapse due to stressors in their life. There is no cure for alcoholism, only treatment. Chronic Relapse Treatment can stop the relapse cycle and help your parent identify the challenges that have caused him or her to start drinking again.

Shut the door on shame and open the door to let your parent in

Only one word was whispered in our house, as if it were the worst insult in the entire world you could call somebody–alcoholic.”

Kaylie Jones did not pen the first memoir written by an adult child of alcoholics, and her work certainly won’t be the last, because the scars caused by alcoholism run deep. Exposing the family secrets may seem wrong to some people, but alcoholism is a disease and we need to feel free to talk about it. Publication of your experiences and emotion many not be the right way to go for most, because it can cause more pain. However, opening the door to dialogue in a safe place, such as a 12-step program or recovery center, is the beginning of hope towards repairing those bonds and helping your parent truly live a golden life free of addiction.

Whether your parent has been drinking for as long as you can remember, or they have fallen down this hole after years of sobriety or social drinking, there is treatment available. Alta Mira has a staff of experienced and empathetic specialists who will help you and your parent determine the best treatment plan. We believe in a holistic and family-based approach to treatment, because we know that alcoholism isn’t a disease that affects only one person. We support you so that you can lead your mother or father towards recovery. Life can be golden when alcoholism is taken out of the shadows.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive residential treatment for alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.