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we are With You

More than four million over 50s are binge drinking at least once a week

COVID-19 is exacerbating rising alcohol issues in older adults. This is a big population of people not getting the support they need.

By Julie Breslin, Head of Programme at Drink Wise, Age Well

Say the words binge drinking and normally the first thing that comes to mind are images of young people in various UK city and town centres overindulging on a night out. You are unlikely to think of older adults sitting at home steadily drinking in front of their TVs, causing little disruption or harm to the outside world.

Yet, despite common assumptions, new research commissioned by With You shows that more than four million over 50s are binge drinking at least once a week during lockdown. Increase that to once a month and the figure rises to more than six million, or over 30% of the UK’s over 50 population.

At the same time, a screening tool used in the research shows that more than one in two over 50s are drinking at a level that could cause health problems now or in the future, with nearly one in four classed as high risk or possibly dependent.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that 2.2 million over 50s say alcohol is negatively affecting their mental health and more than 5.2 million say the pandemic has resulted in them drinking alone. We also found that drinking habits of older adults are affecting younger generations too. 35% of people with parents who are over 50 are concerned about at least one of their parent’s drinking habits since lockdown came in in March.

This new data adds to an already emerging picture. A recent study from the Centre for Ageing Better found 32% of people aged between 50 and 70 have been drinking more as a result of the necessary restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, health surveys across the UK show that people over 55 are most likely to drink at hazardous levels, with consumption among this group increasing in recent years while it decreases among younger age groups. With You’s research shows the second national lockdown is likely to make this picture worse, with 1.3 million over 50s saying they are likely to drink more over the coming weeks.

Percentage of over 50s binge drinking at least once a week during lockdown per region. (Source)

Through my work I see time and time again how life changes, such as retirement or bereavement, lead to older adults drinking more. For some older adults suddenly being faced with long stretches at home with little purpose leads to them reaching for a bottle. Close to 80% of over 50s we work with drink alone at home, hidden from view. Clearly the consequential isolation of the pandemic is exacerbating this issue. Many older adults are unable to see their families or friends. They also report increasing anxiety at the prospect of becoming ill with the virus, while some have tragically lost loved ones.

Unfortunately the advance of the pandemic coincided with the end of the Drink Wise, Age Well frontline service delivery in March 2020. For five years the programme was delivered in Glasgow, Sheffield, Cwm Taf in Wales, Devon and the Western Trust in Northern Ireland. A crucial part of our work was helping people forge new social connections. Regular group meetings, days out and social activities were key to stopping the cycle of drinking at home. We have been very concerned about the wellbeing of a programme participants as they have had to adapt to lockdown, but hope that the resilience they have built over time will help them cope.

However as the polling figures show, there is a huge population of older adults out there that may be continuing to drink at harmful levels who are not receiving support. Across We Are With You we have tried our best to adapt but obviously the necessary restrictions mean we can’t support people in the same way at the moment, and much of our support is now online. At the current time a lack of confidence in digital skills can prevent people from being able to connect with support.

For older adults there may also be additional barriers such as embarrassment or shame that may stop them coming forward for help. Often they wrongly think services are for younger people and fear being seen as a burden.

That’s why With You is launching a new over-50s specific alcohol helpline using learning from its Drink Wise Age Well programme. It is a free, national helpline running seven days a week which will provide confidential advice, information and support to anyone aged 50 or over who may be worried about their drinking, or friends or family affected by an older adult’s drinking.

If you are over 50 and are concerned about your drinking then please give us a call. You won’t be judged or labelled, just friendly, helpful advice from someone who understands what you are going through.

This past year has been has thrown a lot at all of us, there’s no shame in needing a helping hand.

The Over 50s Alcohol Helpline provides support to anyone aged over 50 who may be worried about their drinking, and anyone worried about a loved one over 50. Call 0808 8010750 or visit www.wearewithyou.org.uk for more information.

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Bringing together voices from drugs, alcohol and mental health.

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With You

With You

We are one of the UK’s leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities. We provide free, confidential support with drugs, alcohol and mental health.

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