How the Covid-19 pandemic may impact on alcohol use in the over 50s

Posted 23.04.2020

Sarah Wadd of the Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team, University of Bedfordshire is the academic researcher for Drink Wise, Age Well. Here she explores how the Covid-19 pandemic may specifically affect older adults.

The coronavirus outbreak is affecting everyone’s lives.  Our research group specialises in alcohol use among older adults (people aged over 50).  Here we consider how the outbreak is likely to affect the population’s alcohol use, people with alcohol problems and their families with a special focus on older adults.

What impact is the coronavirus outbreak likely to have on people’s drinking? 

Some supermarket shelves may be empty of alcohol but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are drinking more.  Supermarket shelves have also been empty of toilet roll but that doesn’t mean that people are using more toilet roll during the coronavirus outbreak!  What it does tell us is that many people see alcohol (and toilet rolls) as an essential item that they wouldn’t want to run out of.  The government recognised this when off-licences were added to list of ‘essential’ retailers that could stay open.

It is difficult to predict what impact the coronavirus outbreak will have on the population’s drinking. People are understandably worried and anxious about the coronavirus.  Our research shows that ‘to relax or take mind off problems’ is one of the most common reasons for drinking alcohol in later life.  On the other hand ‘to be sociable’ is another common reason for drinking and the stay at home order means that people are doing less socialising.  Among older adults at greatest risk of alcohol harm, 78% say that they drink alcohol to relax or take their mind off problems and 52% say they drink to be sociable.  42% say they drink when they are lonely, bored or have nothing else to do and this might increase during the outbreak as people have to stay at home.

Population changes to alcohol consumption have been studied in relation to large scale-collective disasters such as the 9/11 attacks in New York.  Alcohol consumption did increase in New York in the 2 years following the attacks but this increase was small (half a drink per day) returning to pre-9/11 levels by 3 years.  New alcohol problems were uncommon and even people with existing alcohol problems were not particularly prone to relapse.

What impact is the coronavirus outbreak likely to have on people with alcohol problems and their families?

Long term alcohol problems can weaken a person’s immune system, making them more vulnerable to serious infections.  People with alcohol problems often have other health problems such as liver disease.  Older adults and people with pre-existing medical conditions appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the coronavirus.  This means that older adults with alcohol problems may be at particularly high risk for severe illness from the coronavirus.

If someone is drinking heavily, life can be difficult for the whole family and social distancing means that families may find themselves together 24 hours a day.  Alcohol problems are more common in older adults who are victims of domestic abuse.  This may be because alcohol is used as a coping mechanism to numb the physical and/or emotional pain and trauma caused by domestic abuse.  There are concerns that the stay at home order means that people will be isolated and trapped with their abusers.

Some good news is that alcohol treatment services are still providing essential care and treatment to people with alcohol problems and their families during the outbreak.  Instead of seeing people in person, services are now providing support to people in their homes via telephone, video conferencing or web chat.  Many people feel most at ease and empowered at home and our research has shown that many older adults prefer to receive support for their alcohol problem in their own home.  Peer support groups are also moving online with people supporting each other using WhatsApp groups and other forms of social media.

If you would like to talk to someone about your drinking, support is available. Following current Government advice, a number of organisations have set up support online or by phone.

  • We Are With You offers a free confidential online chat service. Available: weekdays – between 10am-4pm and 6pm-9pm; and on weekends: 11am-4pm.
  • The Alcoholics Anonymous helpline is open 24/7 on 0800 9177 650. If you would prefer, you can also email them at help@aamail.org or live chat via their website at alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk.
  • Drinkline, a free, confidential helpline for people who are concerned about their drinking, or someone else’s. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm)
  • You can join a SMART Recovery meeting online here.
  • The National Domestic Abuse 24hr helpline is 0808 2000 247.