Why social workers should care about growth of harmful drinking among older people

The rise in alcohol-related deaths among the over 75s demonstrates why social services should take problem drinking among older people more seriously, says Blair Mcpherson

By Blair Mcpherson

Excessive drinking is a growing factor in deaths among older people. According to a report published last week by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) rates of alcohol-related deaths among people aged 75 and over rose by 18% for men and 12% for women from 2011-12.

These statistics only tell part of the story, which is about a largely hidden and ignored problem of alcohol abuse among older people; a problem that goes largely unnoticed and untreated partly because it takes place in the home, partly because of ageist attitudes and partly because of cut backs in social services and reduced funding to charitable groups.

We are used to hearing older people described as a burden on the NHS; more recently, we have heard of a rising crime rate among older people and the problems of caring for older prisoners; now we are told of an epidemic of alcohol abuse. The recently released figures by the ONS support an earlier report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists that this generation is drinking more, enough to harm themselves in the case of one in five older men and one in ten older women.

But alcohol prevention and treatments are geared towards younger people who are often in the news for binge drinking and very visible alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. The over-65s tend to drink at home, theirs is a hidden problem, much more likely to involve drinking seven days a week. Some of those falls and accidents around the home and some of that forgetfulness and confusion that family and friends put down to older age may be due to the drink.

Does it matter and is it an issue for the NHS and social services? Should we care about a couple of large brandies to help you get to sleep at night or a bottle of wine with the evening to ease the pains in the joints. Why would an 85 year old care about long term damage to their kidneys? Is it really a problem provided you’re not driving a car, looking after the grandchildren or ending up in A&E due to another unexplained fall?

But if heavy drinking is as a result of bereavement, loneliness, pain, ill health, disability and depression shouldn’t the health and social care services be offering help and support?

The danger is that the preoccupation with dementia in old age will lead to over-worked social workers, district nurses, community mental health teams and GP’s missing the signs or dismissing them as just part of growing old. Then depression goes untreated, unnecessary suffering is endured and quality of life is diminished.

So will commissioners address this unmet need or will social workers be left saying “sorry we can’t help”?
Blair McPherson is an author and commentator on health and social care.

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