Improving the lives of older people with alcohol problems through research

Moe | August 2021 | 7 minutes

In this blog, Moe, a researcher in the University of Bedfordshire’s Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team, showcases some of the team's research and how it has helped the experiences of older people with alcohol problems.

When you think of someone with an alcohol problem, you probably don’t think of an older person, right? But did you know that young people, broadly speaking, are drinking less, while older people - particularly, older women – are drinking more? It is now people aged 55-64 who drink the most and are most likely to exceed the recommended drinking limits.

My name is Moe Dutton and I’m a researcher in the University of Bedfordshire’s Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team (SMART). Since 2010, we have been working to improve the lives of older people with alcohol problems through research. Our team motto is “our job is not done until something has changed for the better”. Our research is about helping as well as learning.

SMART is quite unusual because all our research is carried out in collaboration with people with lived experience of alcohol problems. We have a programme of training, mentoring and supporting people to co-produce research. This is important because people with alcohol problems are rarely involved in delivering research and can find it difficult to follow the traditional academic career path due to career interruptions and discrimination. Graduates of our programme have gone on to lead research studies of their own, co-author papers and give presentations at international conferences.

"Alcohol Change UK funded us to carry out the Working with Older Drinkers study to identify best practice in recognising and responding to older people with alcohol problems."

Over the past ten years, we have been fortunate to receive funding for research projects from Alcohol Change UK, all of which have brought about change where, if the funding hadn’t been provided, change wouldn’t have happened.

A decade ago, health and social care workers were seeing an increasing number of older people with alcohol problems. Most were identified at a late stage when their alcohol problems were more difficult to treat. Alcohol Change UK funded us to carry out the Working with Older Drinkers study to identify best practice in recognising and responding to older people with alcohol problems. The Welsh Government’s Advisory Panel on Substance Misuse used the research in its 2017 review of ‘Substance Misuse in an Ageing Population’. It implemented several of the recommendations, including alcohol training for professionals working in services for older people. The report was also used to improve practice in other countries including Australia and Canada.

"We can’t stop now, can we? There is still so much to do."

In 2013, Alcohol Change UK funded us to carry out a study which identified a significant degree of undiagnosed cognitive impairment (problems with brain function) in older people with alcohol problems, and found that routine screening for cognitive impairment was acceptable to alcohol service users. On the basis of the findings, Drink Wise, Age Well introduced routine cognitive screening for people attending alcohol services. The screening identified 639 people with previously unidentified cognitive impairment at entry to the service, meaning that alcohol treatment could be adapted to meet their needs and they could be offered support from health and social services.

In 2016, we carried out a study funded by Alcohol Change UK on accessibility and suitability of residential alcohol treatment (rehabs) for older people. The study found that three-quarters (75%) of the rehabs listed on Public Health England’s online directory had upper age limits that excluded older people. Additionally, some older people were subjected to ageist language and attitudes in rehabs. For example, younger residents sometimes called them names such as “old fella” and “granddad”. Participants described instances where younger residents and staff expressed ageist attitudes:

“A guy from Liverpool [resident] said “it ain’t worth it, recovery at your age”. (Derek, early- seventies)

“What they [workers in rehab] do say is ‘you’re looking too high, your goals are too high for your age group’. (Bob, early-fifties)

The project led to Public Health England removing age cut-offs from its directory of rehabs, making it easier for older people to access them.

Thank you to all the people who have taken part in our research, helped us deliver the research and to Alcohol Change UK for funding the research. We can’t stop now, can we? There is still so much to do.