Addressing the needs of older drinkers

Addaction | September 2019 | 7 minutes

Policy proposal: Address the needs of older alcohol drinkers by enforcing action against age inequalities in existing services and developing a range of specialist services to support older adults who drink.

The Alcohol Charter, produced jointly by the Drugs, Alcohol & Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm, sets out effective and workable policies to reduce the damage to society caused by alcohol misuse. The proposal above is one of 16 evidence-based policy proposals laid out in the Charter.

Addaction, the lead organisation in the Drink Wise, Age Well campaign, is one of more than 30 organisations that endorse the Alcohol Charter. Here, they outline their reasons for supporting this proposal.

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Shortly after Drink Wise, Age Well launched the Calling Time report which highlighted how we can address ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research, I presented the findings at an event. I highlighted the fact that three quarters of alcohol rehabs listed on the PHE directory had arbitrary age cut-offs, that a survey of practitioners revealed ageist attitudes and practice, and that alcohol support does not take into account the needs of an older population. At the end a commissioner stood up and said that if there was only one bed available in his rehab he would choose a young person over an older adult; the fair innings argument. Would this statement be so boldly made about any other protected characteristic: race, disability or sexual orientation? How would I feel if this were my dad he was talking about, or me, in the not-too-distant future?

While there are some circumstances where being treated differently due to age is lawful, it would be difficult to justify a decision to allocate a rehab bed purely on age. The argument that ‘the damage is already done’ is spurious in that a person at any age may have complex health needs, and for more than a third of older adults their problem with alcohol develops later in life. Our data shows nearly 60% of people we assess first experience problems after the age of forty. Older adults make a valuable contribution to society in many ways and can benefit as much as other groups from alcohol treatment. For example, Jim was motivated to stop drinking for his granddaughter, and is now a volunteer For Drink Wise, Age Well and a member of our policy advocacy group in Glasgow.

With cuts of over £100 million to community drug and alcohol services since 2012 and data showing a 19% fall in the number of people in England accessing alcohol treatment between 2014 and 2017, it is inevitable that older adults will be the most affected by these cuts. PHE estimates that 1 in 5 alcohol-dependent adults are accessing treatment, and this proportion decreases with age, with only 16% of 65-74 year olds and 12% of those aged over 75 receiving alcohol treatment compared to 26% of 45-54 year olds.

This is why the Alcohol Charter has a specific recommendation to address the needs of older drinkers. Both service providers and those working in policy must ensure that no service can refuse treatment to a person based on their age. Services can be designed in a way that ensures older adults benefit, including home visits and age-sensitive assessments and interventions. Practitioners should be challenged on discriminatory attitudes and practice and all older adults should have the right to live free from the harm caused by alcohol.

The Calling Time for Change Advocacy group comprises people with lived experience, their loved ones and Drink Wise, Age Well volunteers across our five UK sites. They have championed this right in their own Calling Time for Change Charter which offers not only ‘asks’ but ‘solutions’ for national government, local planners and commissioners, and service providers. For them, the biggest legacy of Drink Wise, Age Well should be that every older adult has fair access to support, and policy responds to the needs of our ageing population.

Drink Wise, Age Well provides information on alcohol and getting older, to allow for informed choices. They also support health and social care providers and community organisations to recognise and respond to risky drinking in people aged over 50.

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