How do we handle my father's Alzheimer's and alcoholism?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My father is 84 and a recovering alcoholic for almost 31 years. He was also diagnosed with dementia a couple of years ago and has been taking Aricept since that time. About 8 months ago, my mother passed away quite quickly and unexpectedly from metastatic breast cancer. Since then, my dad has started drinking wine. It started about a month after Mom died, and he said it was to help him sleep at night. We have noticed a change in his personality, and his memory seems to be deteriorating at a faster pace. We have talked to him about the alcohol use, and he assured us that it would not lead to anything more; however, we found 7 large empty wine bottles in his trash the day before trash pickup. We are assuming that he drank them all in one week, and now we know we have a more serious problem. My sister, brother and I were doing our best to cope with the Alzheimers (just diagnosed in March '11) but now we have the alcoholism to deal with, too. I've searched the internet, and I can't find anything with advice for this situation. Is it possible that he has forgotten he's an alcoholic? What do we do? Any help would be appreciated.

Expert Answer

Ron Kauffman is a certified senior advisor (CSA), senior lifestyle radio host, syndicated newspaper columnist, and the author of Caring for a Loved One With Alzheimer's Disease. In addition, Kauffman is also the primary caregiver for his mother, who has Alzheimer's.

Dear Help for Alcoholic Dad:

I'm sorry to hear that you're dealing with such a difficult situation.

As you're well aware, alcoholism isn't a disease that is cured. If someone stops drinking, it is a disease that is at best, in remission. Any damage done from the years of drinking, including alcohol induced dementia, cannot be undone.

The loss of your mother certainly triggered your dad's depression, and it sounds as if he has fallen back on the same behavior he used when he was drinking earlier in his life to deal with the stresses of that time. There is no way that his drinking is of any therapeutic value "“ he has the disease of alcoholism, and has gone back to previous behavior because of the unexpected death of his wife, your mother.

It is quite possible that your dad, because of his dementia, cannot honestly recall how much or why he is drinking. The combination of alcohol and dementia is a major challenge for you, and it sounds as if your dad is living on his own, which gives you virtually no control over his activities.

I suggest a series of steps be taken, all of which will require that you get your brother and sister on-board. None of these steps will be easy or without serious strain on your father and the family.

First, because your dad is a known alcoholic, you need to have him placed in a detox center to have the alcohol cleared from his system. Because of his dementia, he may not be capable of being rational and getting on a long term sobriety plan, so you'll have some follow up steps to take.

Consider talking to the local Alzheimer's Association about your exact circumstances and ask if they have any experience with similar situations. You'll want to know what they suggest and their advice on dealing with this multi-faceted problem.

You may also want to consider talking to an attorney about getting guardianship of your father. If you succeed at taking that step, you can place your father in a facility where total treatment of his dementia as well as control over his environment, movements and ability to stay alcohol-free will be enhanced because he will be carefully monitored.

This is a situation that is far beyond family control, and has to be dealt with in steps and stages with the help of professionals and specialists. I wish you well, and hope that you're successful in helping your father deal with his current challenges.