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How do we manage nana’s drinking without causing embarrassment?

The question

My grandmother, who for most of her life drank nothing but coffee, recently, in her 70s, after my grandfather died, discovered alcohol. Now she likes to drink – a lot, to the point where it's become a problem at family gatherings. Both my father and my mother, who are separated, have tried various strategies to cope with the problem – which have included watering down her drinks (she's not fooled, and demands to have her drinks "topped up") or having completely "dry" get-togethers, which she doesn't seem happy about at all. The problem is: Thanksgiving is coming up and my husband and I are hosting. We don't want to have a "dry" Thanksgiving – why should everyone else be punished for one person's intemperance? But we're worried she will overdo it on the day. How do we manage my nana's drinking issues without causing embarrassment?

The answer

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Obviously, in the larger picture, you want her to seek treatment. Even at her age, I would say, it's not too late to go the whole rehab/AA route. You might even want to stage an intervention at some point. Uncomfortable, but everyone I knew who went down that rabbit hole and subsequently got sober was extremely grateful for the concern and attention of the people around them.

But you have a more proximate worry: how to get through the Thanksgiving holiday without too much in the way of untoward incident – and that day is today! So hope my advice is not too late, but:

I would refuse to serve her. Politely, gently, but firmly. Or maybe serve her one or two – mostly for the sake of not singling her out and making her uncomfortable. But if she becomes a) obstreperous, b) belligerent, c) incoherent, d) showing any of the classic signs of "over-refreshment," it's time to cut her off.

That's what a bar would do. "Eighty-six" your nana, after a certain point, harsh as it may sound.

It's for her own good, after all: she'll be happier, healthier, more clear-eyed and able to interact with all her progeny and progeny's progeny without any kind of intercessory stupor.

She should thank you. Of course, it doesn't always work like that. She might wind up holding up her glass, shaking it so the ice cubes rattle, looking around the room with angry, rheumy eyes, and saying: "Uh, hello? I don't know who's pouring these drinks but I'd like to kick his or her ass because they're not serving me fast enough!"

Then it might be time quietly to take her aside, explain to her the situation, and suggest she take it easy. I'm not talking about in front of anyone: I'm saying in a quiet corner of the kitchen where no one can overhear, or maybe out in the backyard, if you have one.

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Now, it's possible she might still squawk/kick up a fuss.

At which point you have to "parent" her a bit, I'm afraid – i.e. refuse, insist, discipline. Sad but true: in some cases there comes a point where the child, possibly even the grandchild, becomes the parent and it may be in the case of this Thanksgiving that will become your role. It's like refusing a kid another piece of chocolate cake: you just say, "Sorry, nana, I think you've had enough" and then stick to your guns.

Actually, it's not "sad but true." It's just part of the grand scheme of things. As Balthazar says in Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet: "First the young, like vines, climb up the dull supports of their elders, who feel their fingers on them, soft and tender; then the old climb down the lovely supporting bodies of the young to their proper deaths."

I'm not saying it's time for your nana's "proper death" – far from it. Just that it's time, it sounds like, right now, when she needs your support.

Support her, be strong for her – as she was no doubt strong for your mother, and probably strong for you.

And above all, whatever happens, give thanks. It's Thanksgiving, remember? As Mel Bernstein says in Scarface: "Every day above ground is a good day." As long as everyone at the table is above ground and your nana is above ground, it's a good day, even if there's a little conflict/friction/drama.

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Long range, though: you should take steps to ensure your nana is above ground as long as possible. I'm not sure what this would look like in your case, frankly. Each family has its own dynamic and only you can know how best diplomatically yet emphatically to handle your nana's dipsomania.

Whatever you do, though, do it in a spirit of respect, support, and deference to her years of experience and wisdom. I hate it when people treat seniors like babies, even when they're behaving that way.

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