Majority of residential alcohol treatment centres unfairly excluding older adults, new study warns

New research published today (20 November) shows 1three out of four residential alcohol treatment facilities (rehabs) in England are failing older adults on the basis of arbitrary age limits which prevent them from accessing specialist rehab support.

The study, which is being debated at a panel discussion at the House of Lords on Tuesday, 21 November, is being published together with a new report by Drink Wise, Age Well which shows deep and widespread ageism across the whole alcohol treatment system in the UK.

2With higher-risk drinking declining across all age groups other than the over 50s and new figures showing alcohol-specific deaths have increased significantly in the over 50s – with the highest rates among those aged 55 to 64 years in 2016 – it’s time to act.

The study ‘Accessibility and Suitability of Residential Alcohol Treatment for Older Adults’ funded by Alcohol Research UK and conducted by the Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team (SMART) at the University of Bedfordshire shows:

  • Three out of four (75%) alcohol rehabs in England exclude older people on the basis of arbitrary age limits and more than half (55%) exclude them at the age of 66.
  • Where older adults do access rehab, some found living alongside younger residents challenging because of the “generation gap” but some respondents felt that younger residents enriched their experience of rehab.
  • Bullying, intimidation and ageist language and attitudes meant some older people felt unsafe in rehab.
  • Where older people do manage to access rehab, some may subsequently drop out because they find the environment unwelcoming or intimidating.
  • By being ‘age blind’ and treating all residents in a similar way, rehabs are failing to meet the needs of older adults.

The study suggests that continuing to deny older people access to residential alcohol treatment services could result in avoidable alcohol-related deaths among older people.

Dr Sarah Wadd, lead author of the study from the University of Bedfordshire’s Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team, said:

“It is important that older people share equally in opportunities to attend rehab but our research suggests that many older people have to make do without this valuable element of the alcohol treatment system. In the worse-case scenario, this may result in avoidable deaths. When older people do access rehab, they often find the environment unwelcoming or intimidating. More needs to be done to make sure that rehabs are suitable for people of all ages.”

Based on the findings of the report, the researchers together with Alcohol Research UK strongly recommend that rehabs put in place effective policies and practices to reduce discrimination and make their services more age-friendly to ensure older adults, including those with disabilities or limited mobility, are better served in this important treatment service.

Dr Richard Piper, CEO of Alcohol Research UK, which recently merged with Alcohol Concern, said:

“By imposing these discriminatory age limits, alcohol rehabilitation centres are unfairly, and perhaps illegally, excluding older people, who would otherwise benefit from residential treatment. This is frankly unacceptable.

“We urge UK governments and rehabilitation providers to implement the recommendations in this report without delay. Getting this right will make these essential services more accessible to and suitable for older people, which will save lives and improve lives, for these drinkers and their families. With more older people than ever requiring treatment, this issue is urgent.”

The findings from this research come from a search of Public Health England’s online directory of rehabs to identify rehabs which have upper-age thresholds. Qualitative research was also carried out with 16 residents aged between 52-73 from five rehabs.

The research report ‘Accessibility and Suitability of Residential Alcohol Treatment for Older Adults’ being published today by Alcohol Research UK is available here.

The report by Drink Wise, Age Well also being published today ‘Calling Time – Addressing ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research’ is available here.


Notes to Editors

1. 1Of the 118 services listed, excluding those specifically for young people (under the age of 18), three quarters (75%) stated that they had an upper age limit of anywhere between 50-90 years. By the time someone has reached the age of 66, more than half of the rehabs (55%) exclude them.

In the UK, we are seeing a generational shift in alcohol misuse. While overall consumption is falling particularly among the young, levels for older adults are increasing.
Recent figures show that those aged 55-64 are the most likely to be drinking at higher or increasing risk levels:

2Alcohol-specific death rates in the UK are also highest among those aged 55-64. And death rates among those who are 60-74 have increased significantly between 2001 and 2016:

2. The Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team (SMART) is the UK’s only research group for substance misuse and ageing. It sits within the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care at the University of Bedfordshire. Established in March 2012, SMART is a collaborative working group consisting of researchers from a variety of disciplines including addictions, social gerontology, public health, social work and social care.

3. Alcohol Research UK recently merged with Alcohol Concern. The merged charity works across the UK to end alcohol-related harm.  Follow us at: @AlcoResearchUK and @AlcoholConcern. Join the conversation on this latest research at: #ageism & #alcohol.