What can I do to help my aging alcoholic father?
October 29, 2012 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Is there anything I can do to help my alcoholic father? He is retired, getting older, and the issue is getting progressively worse.

I am in my late 20s, and my father is in his mid-60s. He has been a mostly-functional alcoholic for my entire life. He recently retired after working for decades as a successful high-level executive. When he was working, he would be sober during the day, but would drink until the point of blackout drunkenness almost every night. He was never violent or mean - he would just ramble on about weird things until he would pass out. Now that he has retired, the drinking starts earlier and earlier in the day and he has taken to drinking in the car and secretly hiding stashes of alcohol around the house. This is all according to my stepmom - my (also adult) siblings and I all live over 300 miles away from them.

My stepmother, who has been married to him for a very long time, is at a loss as to what to do. She tried to get him to get help for a while, but I think now, sadly, she has just given up and is just waiting for him to drink himself to death. She doesn't even try to discuss it with him anymore. We always turned a blind eye to his alcoholism back in the day, but I don't want to anymore, as he is now getting older - he looks at least ten years older than he is, he has lost a lot of weight, his health is clearly deteriorating and he won't go to the doctor because he doesn't want to be lectured about his drinking (or he's afraid of what they might say about his health).

When I confront him about his issue, he acknowledges it and apologizes, and says he wants things to change, but he refuses to get help and gives me the "I can stop anytime I want to" speech. And yet he can't get through 24 hours without having a drink. I really think he needs to go into rehab or detox, or even just go to an AA meeting, but I know you can't make people do things.

I've tried everything - the "don't you want to meet your grandkids someday" speech to the "don't you want to enjoy your retirement with your wife" speech to the tough love of not taking his calls when he's drunk - he responds to all of these things, but he can't and won't stop. What else can I do? I really don't want to have to wait until he lands in the hospital or gets a DUI for things to really hit home.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You cannot make an addict change if they don't want to change. I would keep talking to him, offering whatever help you can, including getting yourself to an Al-Anon meeting (because this disease affects the whole family), but it's going to take his effort and willingness to change his behaviors.
posted by xingcat at 3:04 PM on October 29, 2012

I'm sure you'll get some excellent advice from folks who have experience with this, so I'll just say: go to an Al-Anon meeting. You need to be able to talk to people who really understand what you're going through.
posted by Specklet at 3:06 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Dad, you need to get help. You're killing yourself, and it hurts to see you not go to a doctor or AA.

If you want help, if you don't want to die from this, help is out there. I can't make you go, but I can take you if you would like to try getting better."
posted by zippy at 3:11 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: you are me ten years ago. My father died alone after his wife left him (in a particularly classless way, but I wouldn't have wanted to stay married to someone so uninterested in his own health and welfare either). I would visit him as often as I was able from my home 250 miles away but I would always go to bed when he started drinking and refused after a while to talk about it with him. We had as good a relationship as you can have with someone who is that unable to function. Watching him degrade was pretty upsetting.

The best thing that you can do is take care of yourself and talk to your sibling and decide if you want to be supportive to your stepmother who is probably also dealing with a lot of pain and guilt. I would suggest Al-Anon or other support groups or reading and drawing some fairly clear boundaries with your dad about what you will and will not manage for him or put up with and encourage your stepmother to do the same. One person's un-tended addiction can destroy an entire family if it just runs amok. I'm so sorry you are dealing with this.
posted by jessamyn at 3:15 PM on October 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

you can actually force people to go to detox. In Massachusetts, for example, this is called a section 35. A family member can initiate one but they have to be willing to appear in court for it to be carried out. The length of commitment is up to 30 days.

These are not used often because obviously, the person being involuntarily committed may resent or be enraged by having this done to them, but I have particularly strong feelings about this topic because I have a job where I see how drunk drivers kill and maim innocent people.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:16 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing Al-Anon. If you go to a meeting and don't like it, please try another. They're all different and you might have to look around before you find one with a vibe that suits you. The first time you go, when they ask if there are any newcomers, please raise your hand and share -- even just a sentence or two about what's going on with your dad. You're not the only one going through this. Also, you might encourage your siblings to attend as well, and with you if you live in the same place.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:27 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone's advice here has been good so far. The only other advice I can offer is to go with him to AA. Maybe take a long weekend, visit and at least get him started. Go to a meeting every day you're there, as they're not all the same.

Realistically, chances are he'll stop going as soon as you leave, but it removes the shame of going to a meeting for some people if they have support at the meeting. There is some possibility that the stories he hears in AA (about people losing their jobs, homes and families, often in that order) may wake him up.
posted by cnc at 3:46 PM on October 29, 2012

Consider that your father is in a hate/hate relationship with himself. He probably hates what his life has become, but he hates (and fears) even more what he would have to endure in order to change it.

I certainly did. For at least 10 years before I finally stopped drinking, my story was essentially the same. I wanted to stop, but I wasn't motivated to stop. Frankly, I didn't know how to live without drinking. No one ever taught me. But I definitely hated myself. When I had entered late stage alcoholism I just lived in my room. Sure, I went to work most days (the days I could cope with the hangover), but when I got home from work I went to my room and drank. I didn't come out to spend time with my wife and step-kids because I didn't want anyone hassling me about drinking. I gave my wife all my money so she wouldn't hassle me. I drank until I passed out. Lather, rinse, repeat. For years.

I never bought anything for myself. No new clothes, or gadgets to play with. I didn't go out for entertainment or exercise. I simply sat in my room with the TV or a book and drank. As much as I told myself I wanted to stop because I hated my life, I could not, not drink. I didn't know how. I didn't know who to ask. I just got sicker and sicker and sicker.

For your dad, now, it is even worse. He has been drinking longer than I did before I finally got sober. As you have realized, alcoholism is a progressive disease. Additionally, he doesn't have his work anymore. His only motivator is gone. He only has one friend left; the bottle. I can't even imagine the turmoil that must be living in his brain every day.

If he is like me, he can't quit for someone else. Believe me, everyone who knew or loved me wanted me to quit, both because I was an asshole and because they knew I was killing myself. I could only stop when it was totally and completely for me. It was a hard process that took a long time, but the key was that I learned to love myself, rather than hating myself. Convincing myself that I was worth help, that I had contributions to make, that there actually were people who were interested in what I had to say, or wanted to be with me. These were small, but important parts of the conversion. In my case, I had a ton of help from AA, but I won't get into that at this juncture.

Instead, I'll say that when an alcoholic can learn to love himself again, he might be ready for the myriad of changes that need to occur to aid him in sobriety. And while no one else can convince him to quit drinking for them, so too is it nearly impossible for him to quit alone once he has made up his mind. A support group of some sort is very important. Be it you, your sister, and others in your immediate family, or a therapist and group, allow him to lean on you as much as you can sustain.

Shared experiences helped me realize that I wasn't unique. Understanding that helped simplify the process. There were others who could sympathize and empathize. Trying to do this all by oneself; he'll just get stuck inside his own thinking. It's like an endless loop.

Show as much love as possible to your father, but don't enable his drinking. If you can somehow convince him to love himself once more through your love for him, then there may be a faint chance for change. At his advanced age, the clock is definitely ticking, but because he has people in his life like you who love him very much, there is still hope. You, and he, are definitely worth it. Help him simply take it one day at a time.
posted by netbros at 3:51 PM on October 29, 2012 [15 favorites]

You may find The Immortal Alcoholic a helpful read. It's a blog written by someone in a similar position to your stepmother, with an eye to supporting others in this situation.
posted by pont at 4:22 PM on October 29, 2012

He has to want to stop drinking on his own - if there was any way of doing so, I'd encourage both of your parents to extend their social circles and do things that are fun. Alcohol for many people with that pattern of use is a reliable substitute for "having fun."

Senior-level competitive sports? Trivia night at the bar/legion? Card/games nights at same?
posted by porpoise at 6:30 PM on October 29, 2012

When you say "drinking in the car" do you mean while he's driving? If so, someone should call the cops. Maybe that would get him to reach a rock bottom he could come back from.

Note: I have an awful lot of experience with functionally alcoholic parents, but unfortunately none with recovery. I'm not sure if "rock bottom" always actually works.
posted by that's how you get ants at 7:26 AM on October 30, 2012

First Al-Anon.

How about an Intervention?

You can try to do it yourself or you can call a professional to help you.

Set up a Detox/Rehab before hand, and then do it.

Betty Ford has a program for family members.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:00 AM on October 30, 2012

I would second everything netbros says. I am in recovery and I have family that are active alcoholics. It wasn't something someone said that encouraged me to change and pleas from family (guilt trips) only made me feel worse about myself. I can't really pinpoint one thing that helped, it was just a feeling of enough is enough and I don't think you can bring that about in another person. I had horrible coping skills and due to my use of substances I wasn't feeling much of anything at the time. That is something I try to remember when I handle my family members, they aren't usually operating with full emotions or cognitive functions as I am.
The suggestions of Al Anon are great and when it comes to my family, I decide what I can handle and maintain those boundaries and alanon has helped me a lot with that. I have encouraged my family to get help, but that usually only hurts me because then I will get my hopes up with an expectation. It seems to work best when I keep my interactions light, and with fewer expectations. (I dont ask about certain things) We have gone from having almost no relationship to one where there are decent and loving interactions.
posted by heatherly at 12:43 PM on October 30, 2012

Alcohol can cause vitamin deficiencies. I think it affects people's decision making abilities so getting your dad to take a multivitamin could help. You can't make someone quit drinking. You can only encourage them to think about what they get out of drinking, is it making them happy and if not, what can they work on changing that might. Try to avoid making your dad feel guilty. It makes people defensive and not open to change. Your dad is the only one who can decide to change this, not you so don't beat yourself up over saving him from himself. Just do what you can if he asks for help.
posted by stray thoughts at 9:31 AM on October 31, 2012

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