Putting into practice – our programme

Posted 04.02.2016

Our recent report highlighted the issues surrounding alcohol use in the over 50s. Now Julie Breslin writes about the Drink Wise Age Well programme, and how we can try to tackle alcohol-related harm in this age-group.

Having worked in alcohol support services for over 15 years I have sadly long been aware of the stigma and shame that can exist for individuals and their families experiencing problems with alcohol, and too often this can be a barrier in seeking help. Our report, Drink Wise Age Well: Alcohol Use and the Over 50s in the UK has highlighted this issue even more so for people over 50, with almost a half of those that gave an opinion stating that people with alcohol problems have themselves to blame, and 25% of those aged over 65 feel that people with an alcohol problem should feel ashamed. 1 in 4 stated that they would not ask for help if they needed it, and the same number do not know where they would go for help. What Drink Wise, Age Well aims to do is start the conversation about alcohol use and ensure people are supported to make healthier choices about their drinking as they age.

Ageing is something that will come to us all, and that is one thing we can’t change. However, what we can change is the lack of awareness, increasing stigma and often hidden problem of alcohol use in the over 50s.

Ageing is something that will come to us all, and that is one thing we can’t change. However, what we can change is the lack of awareness, increasing stigma and often hidden problem of alcohol use in the over 50s. Whilst the report shows the majority of adults aged over 50 are drinking at ‘lower risk’ levels it does reveal that 1 in 5 of those who are drinking are doing so at ‘increasing risk’ levels. This means that they are drinking amounts whereby if they continue to do so may start to experience a number of alcohol related harms and for some they will be experiencing these harms already. And these harms are not just health related; they can include problems with relationships, quality of life, finances and mental health.

Many of the higher risk drinkers in the study said they were drinking as they felt depressed, felt lonely and we can see that higher risk drinkers are less likely to feel part of their community. Social isolation and a disconnect from others seems to be the prevailing issue here, meaning this group disappear more and more below the radar.  Another fact of getting older are significant life changes and the report highlights retirement and bereavement as key changes that have led to people drinking more, along with loss of purpose, social connections and financial worries.
The other thing that struck me in the report was the general lack of knowledge and awareness in relation to alcohol use and unit guidelines. Three quarters were unable to correctly identify the current recommended lower limits for alcohol, and for those who were drinking more than these limits only a very small minority had had someone raise the issue of their drinking with them. Although the study had not yet been completed, we had anticipated a lot of these findings when we designed the Drink Wise, Age Well Programme two years ago, not least because the partnership comprised of organisations that had previous experience of providing alcohol services to older adults, and were familiar with the issues faced.

The programme which is being delivered in five UK sites provides a number of activities and interventions aimed at addressing the study findings. Firstly in each area we have dynamic and creative prevention and awareness teams working within the community. They will engage with workplaces, retailers, community groups and any other place or setting where they can engage people over 50, delivering awareness sessions and information workshops with the help of peer educators. What will be central is interactive and information materials that address this lack of knowledge about alcohol units and lower risk levels.

We will provide targeted training courses to people living and working in our communities who regularly come into contact and support people over 50 day to day. Our resilience programme will tackle the social isolation, loss of purpose and challenging life changes identified in the report through offering coping skills workshops, social activities and volunteering and befriending opportunities.

Finally we will provide direct support to people who are already experiencing problems due to their alcohol use and their families by providing home and community based appointments, peer support meetings and age-sensitive advice and information. A vital element of our work is testing and evaluating ‘what works’ and as we move through the programme life, sharing our learning with wider networks. Our Drink Wise Age Well website will hopefully provide a forum to share this learning, whilst also providing an easy and accessible source of support and information for all visitors who access the site.

We would not be able to do this work without the support of the Big Lottery Fund, whom we are hugely grateful to for supporting the Drink Wise, Age Well Programme via the Rethink Good Health Fund. With Addaction, the programme is also being delivered by a huge range of committed and enthusiastic partners including Royal Voluntary Service, Addiction NI, Drug and Alcohol Charities Wales and Sheffield Alcohol Support Services amongst others. We all believe that with accessible and reliable information people aged over 50 who want to make healthier choices about their alcohol use can do so. We also believe that people can and do make positive changes, and this is not something affected by age. We hope that Drink Wise Age Well will help to make the conversation about alcohol use easier for those who most need help, and ensure the topic no longer stays below the radar.