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Should Assisted Living Communities Serve Alcohol?

By on August 10, 2013

Wine glassAlcohol is an enigmatic substance. Humans have enjoyed it for thousands of years, using it medicinally, recreationally and religiously. It’s capable of bonding humans, lifting spirits, and consoling this disheartened. But it’s also a dangerous drug responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and ruined lives. Does alcohol belong in assisted living communities? Some argue it’s unsafe and irresponsible to provide residents alcohol, while others argue that it’s unkind, unnecessary  and belittling to deny residents the pleasures and benefits of a drink.

Enigmatic Alcohol: Beyond Good and Evil

During the 19th and 20th centuries, an obsession of anthropologists was identifying traits that exist in every human in culture across the world and throughout history to understand the essence of human nature. Human traits that are found in every society, even ones that haven’t had contact with the outside world, are called “cultural universals“. Anthropologists and sociologist made good headway identifying cultural universal over the decades, and discovered many traits that all cultures share, such as gift giving and the incest taboo.

But one cultural universal and core human instinct surprised a few researchers: The drive to intoxication.

In every society on earth, mind altering substances are used for a variety of purposes – for pleasure, to ease the toils of labor, relieve pain, as part religious rituals, or for a mix of all of these reasons.

In Western cultures, the socially prescribed and permitted intoxicant is alcohol, and has been since the dawn of recorded history. For example, if you read Plato’s classical texts, it’s apparent that most philosophical discussions did not occur without copious amounts of wine, and some Ancient Greeks even worshiped a God named Dionysus with raucous nude drinking parties that lasted days on end. Christianity put the end to the cult of Dionysus (and his Roman successor, Bacchus), but through the sacrament of communion, wine remained a central aspect of worship.

Alcohol is deeply embedded within our culture and has been for a long time. For westerners, alcohol is used for practically every imaginable purpose. We celebrate weddings with alcohol, honor our deceased loved ones with a toast, or relax after a hard day’s work with a beer.

But like a lot of things that are enjoyable, alcohol is quite dangerous in excess. Even young and healthy people can become ruined by alcohol. Excessive consumption can kill brain cells, destroy the liver, cause malnourishment and become an addiction. It’s also the cause of tens of thousands of traffic fatalities, each one an unfathomable tragedy.

The point of this preface is to highlight the complex and enigmatic nature of alcohol – how it can be sacred in one context, or a dangerous poison in another context.

BeerConsiderations for Assisted Living Facilities

The foremost duty of assisted living communities is to keep their residents safe. Alcohol can be dangerous to people of any age who misuse it, but seniors can be vulnerable to problems from alcohol even when they consume only modest amounts. A lot of the negative aspects of alcohol are exaggerated for assisted living residents.

  • Alcohol affects the aged brain different, causing more pronounced intoxication.
  • Assisted living residents frequently take medicines that can have unpredictable or dangerous side effects when mixed with alcohol.
  • Older residents often have mobility problems, and for obvious reasons alcohol could increase the fall risk.
  • Seniors with memory impairment can also react unpredictably to alcohol. They may become disoriented or confused, or possibly even act or become disruptive.

Another challenge for senior communities forming alcohol policie is that some residents have a history of alcoholism. Preventing a recovered alcoholic resident from relapsing is one consideration for communities that serve alcohol.

So you can see why an activities director might think to herself, “Nah, it’s just not worth the risk.”

On the other hand, as we discussed above, alcohol is ingrained in our culture . Is it right to automatically decide that seniors who live at assisted living be denied this pleasure? A policy of strict prohibition with a community could be implicitly telling residents they are no longer members of our common society.  Assisted living does not and should never mean loss of freedom or rights, instead it promoted independence by providing seniors the tools and care they need to live the best life they can.

Many assisted living residents would be used to having a glass of wine or two with dinner most evenings, and it could be argued that there’s no reason to force a change drinking habits just because of a move to assisted living.

Furthermore, light to moderate alcohol intake, especially red wine, has been linked to improved cardiovascular health, so allowing residents to enjoy a glass of wine could promote health and longevity.

Assisted Living Alcohol Policies

Assisted living communities have widely varying alcohol policies, showing that there is no industry consensus. Some communities have a bar, while a few forbid residents from even keeping alcohol in their apartments. These are some the main alcohol policies of assisted living communities:

  • Total prohibition (alcohol not served and not allowed in living spaces)
  • Alcohol not served but allowed in living spaces
  • Alcohol served and allowed in living spaces
  • Alcohol served and/or allowed in living spaces with a doctor’s note

But research shows alcohol policies may matter too much practice: A 2012 study published in Research on Aging found that 70% of assisted living residents consume alcohol, which indicates that if even it’s not served at the community, residents will just acquire it other ways (on shopping outings or as gifts).

One could argue that if residents are drinking, they should do so a social setting where they are served by the community, such as a weekly happy hour. This allows staff to assure that residents are not abusing alcohol (through the prevention of over-serving), and allows the alcohol consumption to take place in a setting that’s both social and supervised.

Do you think assisted living communities should serve alcohol? Do you have other thoughts to add to our discussion? We welcome your comments below.

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Jeff attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks on an academic scholarship, and also studied creative writing at University of Hull (UK). He found his calling in 2009 when he began working with seniors and their families at A Place for Mom, and has immersed himself in writing and research about issues affecting older adults. He also enjoys literature, spending time with his daughter and recording music

  1. Jayne
    Where I work, alcohol is not served but allowed in living spaces.
  2. Christine Pope
    I don't approve of alcohol in assisted living. They can hurt their self and others. It impairs their vision and the way they think. I don't see anything safe about it at all. Their minds can be more productive when participating in games or conversation. christine pope
  3. Dennis E, Adair
    Institutional living should not be experienced as a rehabilitative dentention facility by the elderly resident. If alcohol, served in moderation, does not harm (medically as determined by physician oversight) it should be available to those living out the rest of their lives. The concentric rings of experience and surveillance are diminishing as the resident ages in place; they are already giving up independence, so why deprive them a glass of beer, wine or a nightcap.
  4. John Benson
    I have not used alchol since 1986 when I found it was doing me harm. I believe a person in assisted living should be allowed 2 oz. a day, e.g. two drinks. I aslo believe that a person in a hospice should be allowed as much to drink as they wish. I believe that in later years we are entitled to be as pain free as possible and to experience as much pleasure as we can. Moderate use of alchol can provide this.
  5. Kathryn Baker
    I do not drink at all any more. However I don't think that seniors should be treated like prisoners just because they are in nursing homes or assisted living. There should be a way to allow alcohol as long as it is not abused.
  6. Christine Fannon
    Alcohol can be detrimental to SOME members of ALL groups, but that does not mean it should be prohibited to ALL members of SOME groups (ie. those in assisted living situations.) Why deny someone the small pleasure of a drink just because someone else around them is not able to partake? Assisted living is not supposed to be place to be infantilized and restricted; people are not supposed to be incarcerated there. It's supposed to be a place that provides all possible freedom. The world is full of things that are safe for some people and unsafe for others. Being in assisted living doesn't make one less of an individual - or at least it shouldn't.
  7. Kathy
    My Dad (who just passed) was at the VA Hospital for dementia and the only way we could calm him down at night was to give him a glass of red sweet wine. He loved it! And the nurses appreciated it as well since now we know he would sleep most of the night.
  8. Everett Harriman
    My two cents on a related and an even MORE controversial topic / taboo, i.e., marijuana: It makes for a pleasant herbal tea when simmered slowly. It can offer the same relaxing effect and without any risk to the users lungs and bronchial tissue. If you have experienced this gentle life's pleasure I will be pleased to compare and contrast your experience and my own.
  9. Everett Harriman
    I should have closed my posting with a personal descriptor: No, I am not an "activist immature pothead". I am a healthy, 80 years old retired engineer / businessman / consultant having a 15 years international practice serving industrial clients in North & South America and Europe.
  10. Jeff Anderson
    Thanks for the comments, Everett. Two U.S. states have already legalized cannabis for recreational use, and 20+ states for medical use, so it would be interesting to look at cannabis and senior care.
  11. Donna Smith
    I live in a seniors community where everyone is "aging in place". It is not assisted care, but residents who need assistance can hire caretakers to help them in their own apartments. We have an optional "happy hour" every Friday, just prior to the evening meal. Red and/or white wine is furnished and served by the facility or by outside venders, such as suppliers of medical equipment or home health care.. Some residents bring a favorite beverage of their own. There is always a tray of light snacks such as cheese and crackers. ( Most here are of a culture and generation that considered marijuana a "drug". And I think the majority would be strongly reluctant to try any form of it, even if was legal in this state, which it isn't) I've never been a regular consumer of alcohol, but enjoy it on social occasions. I do not play cards or dominos, and am not interested in crafts or jig saw puzzles. I read a lot and use the computer. So I enjoy an activity that has no purpose except a chance to just socialize with other residents. We joke and share stories about our past lives and adventures. There are always employees or professional people at these events to insure safety for everyone. It is a time I look forward to every week.
  12. jackie
    Egads !! for those whose life alcohol would add pleasure too, fill er up !! for those whose life would be diminished with it, then no- to reiterate, seniors are not children to be told what to do- they have lived their lives, & deserve whatever brings them comfort & happiness. if abuse is a potential problem, then limit the amount they have access to- but if a little nip or 2, or 3 enhances their outlook/physical wellbeing/relaxation - why the hell not ? if i couldn't have an ice cold beer on a steamy summer day, i would be very sad- that is no way to live !
  13. joyce luzader
    you betcha! Happy Hour is a wonderful social event!
  14. Cherry
    For over eight years I have managed in senior retirement/assisted living communities. In each one wine, beer, and margaritas (we are in Texas, you see) were - served at our Friday evening wine and cheese events that featured live music and dancing for those who wanted to and could. Even our "teetotalers" attended these social events and enjoyed their Crystal Light. The purpose was socialization and FUN! We enjoyed German keg beer at our Oktoberfests, margaritas at our Cinco de Mayo celebrations, etc. Staff responsibilities were to oversee the event, including, watching that no one exceeded our "maximums" since we were pouring and serving. Every event was introduced - in a fun way but with a clear message of caution. We never once had a problem except the one time we decided NOT to have wine or beer available. Party over. As managers in senior living, our job as I see it is to focus on considering our residents as adults, not children. We are there with a watchful eye but not as police - to assure they have a safe and enjoyable experience - not to impose rules.
  15. Crystal
    I completely understand that some residents medically may not be suited to have any alcohol but for those that can and want to should be allowed given it is not abused or disruptive to others(since they are living in a community) I mean they are older adults not children and should not be treated like babies!! We all get to be old and need assistance ar some point. But why if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner should you suddenly be forced to stop because you are older and in a place of assisted care.