Addiction and the Aging Parent

They call us the sandwich generation, as we make it through our week wedging the caretaking of children and parents into our already full work schedules. Caring for an aging parent can be difficult enough when health issues, mental health concerns, or socialization needs can pull a care-giving family member in a myriad of directions, but add a drinking or drug problem into the mix and the situation can become extremely stressful very quickly.

First things first: it will help to face the fact that addiction can happen to anyone. It really is possible that your mom or dad who has enjoyed responsible social drinking for decades has become addicted. Sometimes addiction to a formerly prescribed pain medication occurs. In order to deal effectively with the situation, you must admit to yourself that is it happening. Denial is a debilitating aspect of addiction and prevents healing and recovery.

Ask God for Patience and Help to Approach Your Parents with Empathy

Before you attempt any conversation with your parent, ask God for the patience and guidance needed to do this lovingly. Although a million things have to be going on in your mind, ask God to help you focus as it’s the only way you can help both yourself and your parent. Starting a discussion in anger or frustration won’t help anyone.

Depending upon your parent, the next steps may be simple and straightforward: discuss your concerns with your parents and help them seek help. However, in many cases, an older adult is no more receptive to hearing about concerns you have about their alcohol use than anyone else, and are as steeped in denial or anger as any other person struggling with an addiction. In these cases the next steps can be very convoluted and difficult. If you feel that a conversation is in order, try “joining” with your parent first.

Acknowledge how difficult it must be to be in their shoes, and really listen to their concerns or complaints. Take time to have this conversation, and set yourself up to be able to really listen and be patient (no mean feat, but worth the effort). Ask your parent how they are coping with all the emotions they are dealing with, thus opening up the way for them to admit that using alcohol or other substances has been part of their coping.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Once you’ve gotten the acknowledgment of the problem out into the open, you might be disappointed by the fact that your parent does not change their drinking habits. Many times an alcoholic will reach a point of admitting that they are indeed addicted, but hopelessness sets in and they continue to drink. Identifying the problem and then feeling powerless to change it can be extremely debilitating, thus leading to more numbing and seeking of solace from the substance in a vicious cycle. To help, try not to judge or react. Pray, meditate, or talk with friends, your pastor, or attend Alanon, but don’t take your frustrations and worries out on your family. Keep reminding yourself that addiction is a disease, and that negative or unhealthy behaviors are symptoms of that disease. If it helps, tell yourself that you wouldn’t be angry or upset with your parent if they sneezed when they caught a cold.

Has your parent been connected to a church for much of their life? Has that connection waned recently? Explore what you can do to help your parent re-connect with a positive community and their church. It may mean being open to trying a local church of a different denomination, or asking at the local senior center for recommendations for a parish that you and your parent feel would be a good fit. Talk to the pastor, and have your parent talk with the pastor to forge a sense of bond and community.

In addition, explore Alcoholics Anonymous. Offer to go with your parent if they have never been to a meeting. Sometimes older adults feel less ready or willing to try new experiences and entering a room full of strangers can be quite intimidating. If your parent isn’t ready, do some online searches and show Mom or Dad the AA literature. The supportive and spiritual language of the 12 steps may help your parent feel more comfortable.

Don’t forget to involve your parent’s medical doctor and any specialists he or she may see. Due to privacy regulations, you’ll have to have your parent’s permission to speak openly with his or her doctors, but if your parent is open to doing so, schedule a visit when you can attend and discuss the situation with everyone in the room. A good doctor on your team is an invaluable ally. Depending upon the severity of your parent’s use, and any additional medical complications, the doctor may suggest a medical detoxification from the substance or a visit to a Christian rehabilitation center. Alcohol and other medications can be very dangerous to stop using, and medical supervision may be necessary to prevent serious or even life-threatening complications. Be sure to ask questions and express your concerns as you learn about options.

Go With God and He Will Guide You, Always

There are many sad and difficult aspects to caring for an older adult with an addiction problem. Perhaps for some care-givers, the most difficult is to maintain a focus on yourself, and to have healthy emotional boundaries. Guilt and shame can erode these healthy boundaries and make it increasingly difficult to manage anything – your own life, your parent’s life, your own family. In the midst of all the stress and busy-ness, try to keep finding your center and stay connected to God. Remaining anchored in your faith will help you have the strength to keep going. Reaching out to God when you need him most will not only help anchor you, He will help give you the patience when dealing with all the challenges that arise from this curveball.