When someone with a history of alcohol abuse develops Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can become a very challenging situation for families to manage.
Alcoholism plus dementia causes faster decline in skills needed to function independently, worsens behavioral problems, and raises safety concerns for the person with dementia and the people caring for them.
Alcohol and medication are also a dangerous combination. Someone who is drinking is at higher risk for serious drug interactions that could cause falls, increased confusion, internal bleeding, heart problems, and more.
What makes managing alcoholism especially tough is that the person with dementia often won’t remember how much they drank, will resist attempts to reduce their drinking, and will neglect their nutrition, water intake, and hygiene.
Realistically, the overuse of alcohol has most likely been going on for a long time and will probably be a difficult behaviour to change completely or quickly.
To reduce symptoms and behaviors as well as make sure the situation is safe, we’ve got 6 tips for coping with dementia and alcohol abuse.
Note: Before removing alcohol, check with your older adult’s doctor to make sure you won’t be causing any harm to their health. In some cases, some people may experience severe withdrawal or other unintended side effects.
1. Remove all alcohol from the environment
- Clear out all the alcohol in the home, including cough syrup and other “innocent” sources
- Make sure all family and friends know not to buy or bring any alcohol
- Notify liquor or grocery stores not to deliver alcohol
- If necessary, restrict access to money that can be used to buy alcohol
2. Substitute non-alcoholic wine or beer
Some people may be at a point in the dementia where they wouldn’t notice if their regular drinks were replaced with non-alcoholic or low-alcohol versions. For wine, you could even disguise the swap by using a regular wine bottle and replacing the contents with non-alcoholic wine.
3. Take safety measures
- Prevent impaired driving by removing car keys, disabling the car, or moving the car away
- Remove or lock away sharp objects and weapons to prevent injury
- Secure doors or add door alarms to prevent accidental wandering
- Lock away cleaning supplies and other toxic liquids – they could be confused with drinks
4. Protect yourself
Alcoholism and dementia are two serious conditions that cause angry outbursts or violent behavior in some people. Together, they can cause even worse behavior.
That’s why it’s important to know your limits and make sure that the situation is safe. If your older adult becomes overly aggressive or violent, it’s time to remove yourself and seek professional help.
Caring for someone with both alcoholism and dementia is very challenging. It will also help to get additional support. That could include caregiver support groups (in person or online), therapy, counseling, or support groups for people who are close to an alcoholic.
5. Find out what’s causing the alcohol abuse
Your older adult is unlikely to tell you why they drink, but you may be able to pick up clues by observing what they say and do. It could be that they’re depressed, anxious, lonely, or grieving.
If you suspect an emotional issue, speak with a geriatric psychiatrist or experienced therapist to figure out how to get your older adult the help and support they need to reduce the need to drink.
6. Get help from professionals
- Ask doctors for advice
- Contact Alzheimer’s or dementia organizations to find out about local resources for alcoholics with dementia – the Alzheimer’s Association is a great place to start
- Call addiction organizations to see if there are any programs available for people with dementia
Traditional rehab may not be a realistic option
When someone has dementia, voluntarily participating in a traditional rehab program for alcohol addiction is not likely to happen. The brain is already damaged by dementia so making good decisions and building new habits and ways of thinking becomes very difficult or impossible.
In some cases, people with dementia may be hospitalized to detox from alcohol and later, moved to a secured memory care community where there is no access (or controlled access) to alcohol.