The hidden generation of drinkers
People over 50 are using alcohol as a way of dealing with factors like divorce and bereavement. We need to show them they aren’t alone.
Growing up in South Wales, alcohol has always played a part in Vince’s life. Initially it was a supporting role, drinking when going out in Cardiff on a Saturday night or a couple of beers to unwind after working long shifts as an Aerospace technician. But after suffering a traumatic knee injury playing rugby, alcohol started to take centre stage. Despite having two operations in the early noughties his knee continued to give way when working long shifts, with the pain getting worse. It was at this point the “dynamic changed from social drinking to having a drink to deal with the pain”. Eventually in his early 50s Vince left his job and faced with long lonely days at home, his alcohol use increased. “It was mainly drinking at home, having a drink at lunchtime to get through the afternoon and then drinking in the evening to numb the pain”.
In popular culture, problematic alcohol use is often associated with young people stumbling out of nightclubs or fighting outside kebab shops. Yet data from the Office for National Statistics shows people over 45 are most likely to drink at hazardous levels, while younger generations are actually drinking less. A recent poll found over four million over 50s think they should cut down on the amount they drink while the number of alcohol related deaths for over 50s has risen 45% since 2001. Public Health data shows that alcohol is now the sixth biggest cause of disability among people in their 50s and 60s, up from 16th in 1990.
When Susan’s two daughters left home and her marriage broke up, her home and life suddenly became far quieter. She was working as an IT analyst, a busy well paid job, but as soon as she got home she’d open a bottle of wine. “I’d go to work, get home and drink until I went to sleep and repeat the cycle over and over again”. Dr Tony Rao is a specialist advisor to Addaction and has studied over 50s’ alcohol use for the past 20 years. He has found that factors like “isolation, loneliness, depression and bereavement” play a big role in people developing a problem with alcohol in later life.
But he also believes the issue goes deeper. He describes how people whose formative years were the 1970s, 80s and 90s were brought up in a culture which “was very permissive, particularly around accepting drunkenness. There was unlimited alcohol advertising on the radio and television and people who didn’t drink were often treated as social outcasts”. He states that older generations “struggle to shake off this culture” even when made aware of the potential harms of excessive drinking such as high blood pressure, stroke, cancer and alcohol induced dementia. The NHS recommends people don’t exceed 14 units of alcohol a week — around seven pints of beer or four large glasses of red wine. But Rao thinks it should be lower for older people because as we age our bodies find it harder to process alcohol.
In a community centre surrounded by the looming presence of Glasgow’s modernist social housing blocks, a group of over 50s snack on biscuits and sip strong cups of tea as they wait for a support group to begin. The group is run by Drink Wise Age Well, a program that helps people make healthier choices about alcohol as they age. The group is led by a volunteer called Mick, a veteran of the program who’s now teetotal. He starts the weekly check in by recounting how on the weekend he went to a family wedding and was stuck drinking Irn Bru with his father in law while relatives and friends danced, disinhibited from their lack of rhythm by wine and beer. The story is met by a mixture of laughter and applause. But, as the baton is passed round the group, applause isn’t only reserved for abstinence. A woman who declares herself 15 months sober receives the same reaction as a man who says he now only takes the exact money for three pints to the pub on a Saturday night. There’s a recognition that different strategies work for different people and that cutting down is a success in itself. As Vince says, “there’s nothing to stop you having a social drink, it’s about not making it a habit, not letting it control you”.
Many of the participants have been heavy drinkers most of their life. Dot describes how in her 20s she was “always the last one to leave a night out”. As she grew older she would “glug back” wine in restaurants while her friends took measured sips. Margaret nods in agreement and says “I always told myself I was a sophisticated european woman, so I drank red wine. But sophisticated european french women drink a small amount with their dinner and I’m knocking back two bottles. I’m no longer sophisticated after that.”
It took Dot years to reach out for support despite “alarm bells ringing’ in her head. She gravitated from being a heavy social drinker to needing a drink on a Monday morning before she went to work. She says this didn’t happen overnight. Instead “things happened and one way or another I felt unable to cope. I was looking for something to prop me up, not realising that eventually that prop would become my problem. At first I used it to help me get from day to day but eventually it became my enemy and dragged me down”.
All the group talk of isolating themselves when they drink and how feeling ashamed locks them into a cycle of further isolation and alcohol use. One person says they leave their rubbish in the hallway after a particularly heavy night as they are too embarrassed of the “clink, clink, clink” of the bin bag.
Julie Breslin is the head of Drink Wise Age Well. She says about 80% of people who use the programme “drink at home alone, they aren’t socialising, they aren’t out and about with people”. Breslin says this is why the program offers “different options including group meetings, social activities, peer support, home visits and volunteering opportunities”. She advises that any alcohol service looking to do more for older adults should consider what it may be like for an older person walking into a service for the first time and do more to engage people within the community and in their homes. She has also found that “older adults respond well in peer settings where there are people with similar experiences”, while organising social activities such as trips and days out do wonders to help break people out of their routine.
Susan describes how she would “hide in my room and drink” because “nobody understands”. But after attending a Drink Wise Age Well group she realised “we all have our own demons, knowing you aren’t the only one going through it shows you there’s a way out at the other end”. Dot says she was “frightened and nervous” before going to her first group. She admits she “thought it was going to be a load of shite”, but the realisation that other people were dealing with very similar issues to her meant “all of a sudden that feeling of being alone vanished”. Margaret laughs and puts it more bluntly, “we need to identify with other people to know that we aren’t freaks”. Everyone agrees that having a space dedicated to people over 50 helps them feel comfortable. Susan says people of her age have a particular experience, “whether it’s divorce, bereavement or children leaving home, we can be honest with each other. I don’t think I could be honest in front of an 18 year old because they would probably look at me like my daughters do and say ‘just get over it’”.
Dr Tony Rao believes a big barrier to treatment for people over 50 is “they’re generally a lot more private and are fearful that by being honest about their drinking pattern someone will accuse them of being an alcoholic”. This is why Breslin recommends that any family or friends who are worried about a loved one’s alcohol intake should talk to them about “what’s changed in their life” rather than their drinking. She says people should start with “I noticed you’ve not been going out and seeing friends as much” or “I’ve noticed you seem a bit more isolated”. She reiterates “it’s about trying to identify the reasons and understand what’s happened” and it’s important to “approach it in a non-combative way and not to challenge someone when they have been drinking.” Almost everybody I meet credits the help of a loved one for coming forward and accessing support.
Breslin believes it’s vital that people know that just because they are accessing alcohol support, it doesn’t define them, “they’re still a father, a mother, a sibling, a friend, a colleague. Not pigeonholing people helps them retain their dignity and self-respect”. As Dot says, “I’m Dot. I’m not defined by my alcohol. I have my own hobbies, my own things that I do. I come here because I can share with people who’ve experienced the same problems as me”.
If you or someone you love needs help or support, reach out. You can chat to a trained advisor at addaction.org.uk.
Some names have been changed to protect people’s identity