Alzheimer’s and Alcohol Use

The Alzheimer’s Association often gets calls from caregivers overwhelmed with the challenges of caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease.  When that person with Alzheimer’s is also abusing alcohol, problems tend to multiply.

In a recent call, a wife caring for her husband reported that her once gentle spouse had now become loud and aggressive, often angrily blaming her for things he could not understand or remember.   She expressed her understanding that her husband’s daily glasses of wine were contributing to his angry outbursts, as things became worse after drinking.  She also wisely expressed understanding that he was depressed about his growing feelings of helplessness as his Alzheimer’s grew worse; she knew that the wine an was an attempt to numb those feelings.

When driving is involved, the combination of Alzheimer’s and alcohol can be deadly.  The person with Alzheimer’s is already impaired; alcohol intensifies that impairment and greatly increases the chances that accidents will occur.

Attempting to “reason” with the person who has Alzheimer’s about his or her alcohol use often does not have a positive result, leaving family members feeling overwhelmed and defeated.  They realize that the situation must change, but feel helpless as to what they can do.

Of course, not all persons with Alzheimer’s are affected so negatively by alcohol use.  Some families report that the person continues to enjoy a beer or glass of wine in the evening, with no ill effects.

If you are a caregiver who recognizes problems related to alcohol use, please know that help and support are available.  Here are some possible action steps:

  • Call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.  Trained counselors who understand these issues are available.
  • Consider quietly substituting a non-alcoholic “beer” or “wine” for the real thing; you can often purchase look-alike items like sparkling cider.  Or, pour a non-alcoholic beverage into an empty bottle for the real thing.
  • Talk with the doctor about your concerns; try to have this conversation privately, not in front of the person with Alzheimer’s.
  • Hide car keys or disable the car if necessary.
  • In an emergency, call 911 for help.
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