Tips for social care professionals on supporting older drinkers

Everyone in social care needs to be aware that older drinkers don’t fit the stereotype of alcohol misuse and treatment, writes Paul Cachia

Last week was alcohol awareness week. Traditionally it’s the time that we warn teenagers and young people about the risks of drinking too much.

But the group that we are becoming increasingly concerned about isn’t just young binge drinkers… it’s actually older people.

A different approach is needed

According to the Office for National Statistics, people over 45 are three times more likely to drink alcohol every day than younger people. And in my experience as an alcohol outreach worker, this group of people often need a different approach and the most support to recover from addiction.

Some of the people I work with have always drank, but some started drinking much more heavily in their later years. Foundation66’s own research, conducted by YouGov, showed that over one in eight (13%) over-60s drinks more after retiring.

Of these, one in five (19%) uses alcohol because of depression, and one in eight (13%) drinks to deal with bereavement. The results also show that one in eight (12%) most often drinks alone, at home.

There are many reasons why people may become dependent drinkers as they get older. From what I can see, isolation and loneliness are predominant factors, as well as boredom and a ‘lack of purpose’ after retirement.

Key observations and approaches


Tips for working with older drinkers

1. Ask older people how they are using their time

If they say they are in the house watching TV alone all day, they are at higher risk of drinking more.

2. Know what is available for older people in your area

Direct them to community groups, volunteering opportunities and courses.

3. Consider all the issues affecting older people when designing services

Think about accessibility, cultural and social expectations, choice of setting and the type of interventions.

4. Don’t write off older drinkers

It might take longer, but older people with alcohol dependency can recover. Care packages should always look forward to the next stage.


This group doesn’t fit the stereotypes people hold about alcohol misuse and they often keep their drinking hidden. There’s a perception that they are ‘past help’ and there just aren’t enough services out there to offer them the support they need.

Once older people do access services, of any kind, there are a few key observations and approaches that I have found useful in my work. Firstly, they are often ‘treatment naïve’.

A difference in schooling, social structures and possibly workplace practices, means that older people are not used to working in groups – they find them intimidating in comparison to younger people who tend to be more open-minded.

When I first started a group hardly anyone turned up. They thought it would be like a group lecture where I would sit and say ‘don’t drink’ in a stern voice. Creative approaches such as drama and art therapy can work well with older people, but they must be introduced gently.

Older clients also tend to have a fear of drug users, so integrated services need to take this into account.

Creative approaches can work well

Environment wise, older people definitely prefer a more ‘living room-esque’ drop-in location over any type of clinical primary care setting. Many see interaction with an outreach worker like me as an opportunity to chat.

I see one man who always delays having his first drink of the day until I have visited. He says that he wants to be able to talk to me properly, and I genuinely think that regular positive social interaction could have prevented the extent of his drinking and will be the key to his recovery.

Another thing I have found is that there is a lack of ‘move on’ options for older people. I have four older clients who are currently not drinking in a ‘wet’ hostel, but the options of where I can signpost them to next are slim at best.

Paul Cachia is an alcohol outreach worker for Foundation66. He has worked in the alcohol and drug sector for over 15 years.


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