Today, Alcohol Research UK publishes two reports on alcohol and older people: Alcohol Misuse and Cognitive Impairment in Older People and Use and Abuse: A Feasibility Study of Alcohol Related Elder Abuse. Both are available for download on our website.
The impact of alcohol on older people has not, until recently, received widespread attention. Public concern tends to focus on the more visible, and obviously troubling, problems around youth drinking and public disorder. Underage drinking is another well-recognised concern. However, alcohol has an impact across the lifecourse – as our 2014 conference will explore – and there has been a marked shift in attention towards older people in recent years.
According to the latest data, people over the age of 65 are among the least likely to have drunk alcohol in the previous week (along, perhaps surprisingly, with 16-24 year olds) and are significantly less likely than other age groups to exceed recommended guidelines when doing so. Among those who do drink, a pattern of regular, light consumption is the norm.
Nevertheless, the problem of alcohol abuse among older people is real and often under-recognised. Recent figures show that between 2002 and 2012 the number of older people admitted to hospital for alcohol-related mental and behavioural disorders increased by 150% (though comparing admissions data across this period is difficult due to changes in calculation methods). New figures from Wales show around 1,000 over 60s being referred to treatment for alcohol problems each year, leading to concerns that a hidden problem was being overlooked. In 2011, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for greater policy and research attention to be given to substance use among older people more generally.
Dr Sarah Wadd has worked on this issue for a number of years. Her Alcohol Research UK-funded study Working with Older Drinkers (2011) provided an overview of developments in the field and highlighted the need for health and social care practitioners to better understand the needs and vulnerabilities of older people. In their new report, Dr Wadd and her colleagues explore the particular challenges faced by those working in substance misuse services when dealing with older people with cognitive impairment. They argue that services need to be better geared both to identify cognitive impairment and to support individuals for whom it is a reality.
In the second report published today, Dr Mary Pat Sullivan and colleagues consider the extent to which elder abuse is exacerbated by alcohol. The role of alcohol in other forms of violence – whether public or domestic – is well-recognised, but the specific issue of its relationship to the mistreatment of older people remains less well-researched. This exploratory study adds significantly to the existing literature and identifies both key characteristics and possible policy responses.
Taken together, these reports further develop our understanding of the range of ways in which alcohol can impact on the lives of older people. They also contribute to the development of evidence in the field, while reminding us that the work of people providing services for both older people and substance users is complex, difficult and often very challenging.