When Vivian Young’s father retired, his active social life did not. “It mainly consisted of golf, golf, and... more golf,” says Young. The one exception to the rule was lunch at a local winery every Wednesday. Like clockwork, he and his retired coworkers would meet at noon, order a few bottles of cabernet, eat, and reminisce. As he aged, 18 holes became a bucket of balls on the driving range. But eventually, arthritis and illness made even that too uncomfortable. His poor health made him say goodbye to his golf career — but not those Wednesday lunches. It was a sacred tradition for this group of old friends that no one wanted to end.
After being diagnosed with cancer, Young’s father entered an assisted living facility. One time when she stopped by for a visit, she was greeted by his group of Wednesday drinking buddies, each sitting with an empty plastic cup in hand. She then noticed the wine bottle concealed in a brown paper bag. “Aha! It was Wednesday and his buddies wanted to bring him some liquid courage to cheer him up,” she says. Young left the men to their “Winesday” ritual and waited in the lobby. When she came back, she noticed her dad’s face “had a nice pink tinge instead of his usual sallow complexion.”
Alcohol plays a major role in many people’s social lives, and this doesn’t necessarily stop as they enter their senior years. Yet, it’s fairly uncommon to research alcohol policies and procedures when looking for an assisted living home. Some nursing homes ban alcohol altogether, others allow it only with a doctor’s note, while some have no restrictions. Places like St. Patrick’s Home in Bronx, NY, offer a regular happy hour, complete with a jukebox. Rumor has it, the waiting list for the volunteer bartending gig is sometimes a month long!
Of course, there are many things to think about, including health and medical issues, when exploring alcohol policies in assisted living homes. But one thing to keep in mind: When an older adult is grappling with such a major life change, taking away something they enjoy — like their nightly or weekly glass of wine — can add salt to the wound. Young’s heartwarming story about her father and his buddies is a tale of camaraderie, joy, and respect. It highlights the importance of honoring the traditions of seniors as they age.
Here are some other factors to consider if you aren’t sure if alcohol should be on your assisted living checklist:
Health Benefits of Drinking
The social benefits of moderate drinking may be more obvious than the health benefits.
Indira Cidambi, MD, an addiction specialist and Vice President of the New Jersey Society of Addiction Medicine and Medical Director for the Center of Network Therapy in New Jersey, says there have been some documented benefits to moderate alcohol use, such as reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Of course, there are other, potentially healthier, ways to achieve these results. “A healthy diet and staying physically active generally deliver more benefits and have been documented more extensively,” says Cidambi.
Age is a Factor
Our bodies react differently to many things as we age: exercise, injuries, and yes, drinking. One glass of wine at 65 will most likely affect you differently than it did at 35. “The body changes as we age and the elderly can feel ‘high’ without increasing the amount of alcohol they consume,” says Cidambi. “This increases the chances of accidents, including falls and car crashes. The elderly have thinner bones, which can fracture more easily.”
How much are you or your loved one drinking? A moderate amount of alcohol, according to Cidambi, is one drink a day for men and women over the age of 65. That’s an average of seven drinks a week. Any more than that could be a cause for concern.
Communication is Key
Talk, talk, talk. First ask the senior how important alcohol is to him or her. Then ask their doctor if it is safe for them to drink. As you review possible assisted living homes, ask about their policies and social events. If it turns out that drinking is something that will need to be given up, try to plan other enjoyable social activities.
Young was reunited with her dad’s loving friends at his funeral, just one month after she saw them drinking with him in his room. “I joined his buddies and we raised our glasses in a toast to his memory,” she recounts. “I became an official member of the Wednesday wino club!” Young’s desire to honor her father’s life, by helping him live it his way to the end, brought joy to her dad and his friends. Whether this involves a glass of wine with dinner or something completely different, taking a loved one’s priorities into account when choosing assisted living is a must.