As more of the Baby Boomer generation ages into what is considered elderly – 65 years and older – their adult children are faced with caring for aging parents who tend to drink more alcohol than other generations, or at least more than the generation that came before them. According to a report on the behavioral health of older adults by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), of American adults aged 60 years or older:

  • 10 million (12.8%) engage in binge drinking
  • 5 million (3.2%) engage in heavy drinking
  • 4 million (5.6%) have alcohol use disorder

Here are some quick definitions to clarify what that means:

  • Moderate drinking: A maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
  • Binge drinking: Five or more drinks on a single occasion for men and four drinks on a single occasion for women.
  • Heavy drinking: Fifteen or more drinks per week for men and eight or more drinks per week for women.
  • Alcohol use disorder: A condition diagnosed by a professional clinician. The severity is determined by how many of the 11 criteria you meet in a patterned way in a 12-month period.

People may have the misconception that only addictive alcohol use is problematic and that moderate drinking is even good for your health – something the government only started advising against in 2020 – but they should be aware that the impact of alcohol on the body changes as you get to your senior years.

Drinking Affects the Body Differently as You Age

As a body ages, you are likely to deal with increased risk of inflammation and falls and a decrease in memory, coordination, and reaction time. Moderate drinking isn’t healthy for even for a young or middle-age adult, but for an elderly person, it can make declining health worsen faster.

Generally speaking, an elderly person isn’t able to metabolize alcohol as quickly. They may feel the effects of alcohol longer and from fewer drinks than they did as a middle-aged adult. Studies also show the impairment that comes along with alcohol use – slowed reaction time, decreased coordination, poor driving performance – can be worse in older drinkers than in younger drinkers.

Some further considerations around health and the elderly drinker:

  • Medication interactions: Older people tend to take more medication, which may interact negatively with alcohol. Further, people may think if they take medications in the morning, they can drink at night, when in fact, the medication is still in their system.
  • Cognitive decline: There is data to show that drinking more than the recommended amount may contribute to cognitive decline, though it is unclear how alcohol affects the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Quality of sleep: As people age, they often report a decrease in the quality of sleep, and reports show that adults who binge drink were more likely to report insomnia.

Additionally, people over the age of 65 are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Drinking increases the likelihood of developing these conditions as well as diabetes and high blood pressure.

How to Talk to Your Aging Parent About Their Alcohol Use

If you have an elderly parent or loved one whose drinking concerns you, have a conversation with them to let them know you care. If handled from a place of concern and not judgement, it can be surprisingly effective. Here are some tips:

  • Find a quiet, private place for this discussion. Make sure you have time to have the conversation and that you’re free from distraction.
  • Emphasize how much you care about them (e.g., “I love you, and I’m worried how your drinking might affect your health.”)
  • Stay on topic, the goal is to tell them you are concerned about their alcohol use, not to force them to quit drinking or go to rehab.
  • Listen to what they have to say.
  • If they agree to assess their relationship with alcohol, ask if/how you can help.
  • If they refuse help, it’s okay. You can’t force change.

More on If They Refuse Help

Some additional considerations for if your elderly parent doesn’t want to change their alcohol consumption: See if they would be willing to hear from other family members, friends, or respected community members (e.g., a church leader) to get help.

Ask if they would be willing to talk to a physician, a licensed alcohol counselor, or a therapist. Continue to support them, but also make sure to take care of yourself. Set boundaries where you need to. Consider attending Al-Anon meetings for some helpful resources and support. If you’re a Youturn Health member, consider getting a peer coach. You’ll be paired with someone who has experience as a family member of someone struggling with substance use, so they’ll know and understand your situation.

For more information on resources for caregivers, please check out our Caregivers Need the Most Support blog. For more on substance use disorder, please visit our Substance Misuse resource page.