Caregivers and Alcohol Abuse: 6 Signs You Have a Problem

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Every April, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence sponsors Alcohol Awareness Month. The awareness campaign first launched in 1987, and it continues today with organizations around the U.S. joining in each year to spread awareness regarding alcoholism, signs of alcohol abuse and education on how to seek assistance.

While alcoholism is a chronic disease that can impact almost anyone, some people are at greater risk due to genetics, their environment or other factors. One element that can lead to alcohol abuse is stress, which family caregivers tend to have in spades.

Relaxing with a glass of wine and a good book at the end of an overwhelming week isn’t necessarily an unhealthy coping mechanism, but for some caregivers, drinking alcohol becomes a crutch and my lead to addiction.

Why are caregivers at risk of alcohol abuse?

A study published by the National Institutes of Health notes a correlation between caregiver burdens and alcohol use. Specifically, the study found that caregivers who had emotional or social burdens were at risk for alcohol abuse.

“Caregiving takes a huge toll on a person, and we often seen caregivers begin to fail emotionally and physically...especially if they do not have enough support,” says Anna Bradshaw, a mental health counselor and social worker.

In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 10 percent of caregivers may develop substance dependence issues because of these risk factors, according to Bradshaw.

Cortland Mathers-Suter, managing director of Colorado drug and alcohol treatment center AspenRidge Recovery, points to the currently aging population and says we’re approaching a time when we the U.S. may see the largest population of at-home caregivers in history. A growing number of at-home care situations can spread supporting resources thinner, leading to a heavier burden on caregivers.

6 Signs of Alcohol Abuse in Caregivers

Support systems and strong coping mechanisms can go a long way in helping caregivers perform obligations without experiencing long-term negative side effects, but stress will always be a factor in such relationships. That’s especially true for family caregivers, who are often balancing work, other family requirements, social obligations and trying to squeeze in time for self-care on top of caring for a loved one.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse lets caregivers know whether they may need to seek support or professional intervention. What follows are six signs of alcohol abuse among caregivers.

1. Agitation and anger

Bradshaw says that caregivers dealing with substance abuse issues are likely to display many of the same signs as other individuals, though the “ongoing stress and demand of caregiving” may make certain symptoms more noticeable than others.

Displays of agitation and anger are common symptoms of alcohol abuse, but caregivers in some situations may feel trapped or bitter that other loved ones aren’t pitching in to help. Couple that with alcohol abuse, and caregivers may find themselves lashing out at others more frequently.

2. Using alcohol to self-medicate

“Caregivers may turn to substances to increase their sleep, or conversely, stay awake for longer periods of time if their loved one needs constant attention,” says Dr. Sal Raichbach, a psychologist with Ambrosia Treatment Center.

Using alcohol to treat any type of problem or symptom, including difficulty falling asleep, can be a sign that substance abuse is a problem for a caregiver. It can also be the start of a cycle, as Raichbach notes that prolonged alcohol abuse can lead to more physical symptoms and reasons to self-medicate by drinking.

3. Unexplained physical symptoms

Diana Clark, an addiction and family expert from Turnbridge, an addiction treatment program in Connecticut, lists a number of physical symptoms of alcohol abuse or addiction, including exhaustion, stomachaches, headaches and backaches.

These can all also be signs that a caregiver is simply overwhelmed with his or her obligations or signs of actual physical ailments. Caregivers who experience regular physical symptoms should consult with their own medical provider to rule out issues, but if such symptoms go hand-in-hand with increased alcohol use, they can signal alcohol use disorder.

4. Mistakes in handling caregiving-related details

Signs of alcohol abuse can also include changes in performance at work or home and a lack of accountability, says Clark. A caregiver who suddenly start forgetting appointments or important daily activities or makes ongoing mistakes when giving medication to their loved one may be dealing with alcohol-related focus, concentration and memory problems.

5. Abuse or neglect of the person in your care

Poor decision-making is another sign that alcohol use has gotten out of hand, and in a caregiving environment, that can lead to neglect or even abuse of your loved one. Extreme abuse of alcohol can lead to blackout episodes, and caregivers who experience them may not realize that they failed to appropriately care for the person in their charge.

6. Hiding your alcohol use from others

Finally, hiding alcohol use from others can be a sign of addiction. Caregivers who go out of their way to keep alcohol use a secret from other family members or anyone else with input into the care of their loved one could be dealing with a substance abuse disorder.

Seeking help for alcohol addiction

Caregivers often put their loved ones’ needs first -- another thing that puts them at risk for alcohol use disorders. They may begin to use alcohol as a way to deal with minor issues, and it can balloon into an addiction quickly — all the while, the caregiver continues to try to hold it together for the sake of their loved one.

But the truth is that caregivers can’t appropriately tend to someone else if they’re caught in an addiction. If some of these signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse in caregivers resonate with you personally, take some time now to get help caring for yourself.

Sarah Stasik

Sarah Stasik is a full-time freelance writer and project manager with a background in healthcare revenue cycle management. See full bio