Navigating the imperfect systems of elder care with a parent suffering from alcoholism

Addiction is hard. It is hard for the person suffering from the addiction. It is hard for the family members of the individual.

My father suffers from alcoholism. This is beyond having a glass of wine each day. This is more akin to starting with wine at 10am, switching to liquor around 4pm, and eventually wrapping up the evening around midnight. The cycle starts over again the next day.

The addiction made it hard for him to work, it impacted his decision making, and it eventually took his personal autonomy. At the age of 75 my father is not able to dress himself, bath himself, maintain a living space, prepare his own meals, or even control his bodily functions. It is heart breaking. Spending time with him is really hard for a lot of reasons.

Having emerged from the fog of alcoholism as an adult, my siblings and I see the issue and externalities plain as day. We have shepherded our grandparents through their retirement years and aging doing the best we can to support them and making sure they always had a clean, safe place to live, and receive adequate health care they needed.

For an elderly person with addiction, things are completely different. The challenges are not just getting the person to appointments and assisting with activities of daily living, a lot of the challenge is dealing with the personality and the deficits created by alcoholism. And the level of assistance is astronomically different.

We have found that there isn’t a single provider who feels comfortable addressing the entirety of the issues we face. As a result, the quality of my father’s life isn’t what it should be. Identifying who we need to see, when we can get in to seem him/her, and then re-balancing all of the courses of treatment is an ardous process. Particularly as the patient lobs critique and resistance.

As mentioned above, my father cannot control his bodily functions. He tries to do the best he can, but flatly, the years of drinking have taken a heavy toll on his organs. They flat don’t work. Couple that with his inability to make healthy decisions around his diet, and his day-to-day life is more akin to that of livestock than a human being.

Couple that with his personality of fighting every single perceived battle, digging in, denying, and turning issues around, and finding caregivers and empathetic professionals is pretty damn hard. There are days where he is completely vacant of meaningful thought and he is completely withdrawn, seemingly in some sort of catatonic state. There are days where he fights every single thing you do. And then there are moments where he is engaged and cooperating. Predicting what you’re going to experience is impossible.

It is a HUGE ask of an individual being paid hourly to try to maintain a healthy environment for a person suffering from alcoholism.

If caring for an elderly parent with addiction feels really hard, it is. If you are finding that the professionals you are dealing with don’t get it, they don’t. If you feel like you’re jumping through extra hoops, you are. The healthcare system as a whole, providers, business admin., everyone in the system is currently stretched.

All you can do is the best you can with what you have. What you should expect is having to engage a professional for every aspect of the person’s care. As a family member, your role is going to be akin to a general contractor, managing all of the trades that are there for support.

And sometimes, you’ll have a small ask of a provider, that is within their grasp, and rather than perform it, they’ll say that is “outside their scope.” It happens. It is frustrating. And you got to move on.

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