When Roles Reverse: Talking to Parents About Alcohol
In every parent-child relationship, there eventually comes a time when roles reverse. It’s a natural and inevitable extension of the aging process. The mom or dad who once changed your diapers, drove you to soccer practice, and applied Band-aids to skinned knees will gradually lose their mobility and independence, requiring greater help and supervision with their own health and safety needs. For the child who in turn is tasked with caring for an aging parent, navigating this new juncture can be difficult because it means taking a more directive role in relation to a grown-up who, in addition to having parented you, is used to having their own independence and making their own lifestyle decisions. When Roles Reverse: Talking to Parents About Alcohol
Take, for example, the issue of alcohol consumption in old age. It’s a biological fact that alcohol tolerance decreases as you age, so that moderate drinking that caused no health problems earlier in life may pose serious dangers later in life, purely because of the aging process. Consequently, maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the golden years often requires scaling back one’s drinking habits-to a weekly intake of seven drinks or less, according to recommendations from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.
But tell that to an aging parent who is accustomed to several glasses of wine every night, and chances are that you’ll draw some ire. While some of this touchiness may be unavoidable, the following tips and guidelines can ease a conversation about drinking-related concerns with an aging parent:
Pick the right time to talk. As a good rule of thumb, “the right time” for a conversation about your parent’s alcohol use will not be when they are drinking. If their habit is to polish off a bottle of wine in the evening, choose an earlier time in the day to broach the subject. If you’re noticing signs of alcohol abuse-a morning hangover, for example-the best time to talk with your parent may be when they’re experiencing the negative side effects of their drinking. In that state, they may be more open to seeing how their drinking is adversely impacting their health.
Arm yourself with the facts. Because of aging-related differences in how the body metabolizes alcohol, just two or three beers at age 70 have about the same impact as four or five beers at the age of 50, according to Dr. David Oslin, M.D., in a 2010 article in the New York Times. “The effect almost doubles,” Dr. Oslin said, with the result that a seemingly moderate intake of alcohol can lead to insomnia, depression, exacerbated arthritis pain and heart damage, among other serious conditions. These dangers are compounded by the fact that many doctors do not sufficiently screen older patients for alcohol and other drug use-so it is safe to assume that your parent may not be aware that a long-held drinking habit may pose new health risks in their golden years. They also may not realize that alcohol may interfere with one or more of the medications they take and that in some cases the combination may be toxic. Sometimes, simply laying out these facts for an older parent will be enough to motivate them to rein in their alcohol consumption.
Open the conversation with a question. This way you convey your concern honestly and directly, but in a gentle, non-confrontational style that invites (and shows that you value) your parent’s feedback. A good lead-in question might be, for example, “Have you talked with your doctor about the medications you’re taking and their interactions with alcohol?”
Avoid labeling or diagnosing the problem. Even if it is an accurate description of your parent’s drinking habits, addiction terminology like “alcoholism” or “alcoholic” is not helpful because of the heavy stigma it carries. Using these labels can amplify your parent’s sense of shame or embarrassment about their drinking. (After all, if their alcohol consumption is causing negative consequences, they will have at least some awareness of the problem-even if they can’t admit it to you.)
Be specific about your observations and concerns. The caution to avoid labeling or diagnosing your parent’s problem should not require that you be silent about your observations and concerns. Just because your mom or dad is elderly does not mean they need to be coddled or protected from the truth. On the contrary, it is perfectly appropriate to say, “I am concerned about your drinking, because of x, y, z.” You can convey your concerns in a gentle and respectful tone.
Focus on the present, by identifying positive incentives for adopting a healthier alcohol intake. Even at an advanced age, the promise of better health and quality of life-and making the most of the time that is left-can be compelling motivation to modify one’s drinking habits. Try to emphasize the things that you know give your parent joy in the present, and that will give them even more joy when alcohol is less of a crutch. Whether it’s spending time with grandchildren, pursuing a romantic flame, or learning a new hobby in retirement, something else is worth more to Mom or Dad than their drinking ritual. By bringing that “something else” to their attention and encouraging them to pursue it, you’ll be sending the message that you love your parent and want them to be happy and healthy. It is hard to think of anything more persuasive than that.
Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.
When Roles Reverse: Talking to Parents About Alcohol
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