Widespread ageism in alcohol treatment preventing UK over 50s getting help

Posted 20.11.2017

  • Three out of four residential rehab services in England exclude older people
  • “Older adults with alcohol problems among most vulnerable in society”  
  • ONS figures show 45% rise in alcohol-specific deaths in UK 50+ since 2001

A new report being launched at the House of Lords on November 21 has found that ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research is denying older people the treatment they need to recover from harmful drinking.

The report for Drink Wise, Age Well asserts that some policies and practices are actually in breach of Equality and Human Rights legislation and calls on UK governments to develop alcohol strategies that recognise that older adults’ needs may be different to those of younger people.

Higher risk drinking is declining in the UK except among people who are age 50 and over and with an ageing population the trend is of major concern, not least to the World Health Organisation (WHO) which has set a target of at least 10% relative reduction in harmful use of alcohol by 2025.

Recent ONS figures further underline the urgency of the situation.ONS Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK: registered in 2016’ show a 45% increase in alcohol-specific deaths in the over 50s in the past 15 years (2001 – 2016).

The new report, however, states that ““Ageist policies can be identified easily and abolished in a relatively short period… with very little impact on resources”.

‘Calling Time – Addressing ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research’ was authored by the Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team at the University of Bedfordshire, Addaction and the International Longevity Centre-UK (ILC-UK) based on extensive review of UK strategies, policies and legislation, published literature and data on clinical trials, as well as a polling of professional opinion and focus groups with problematic drinkers.

Its main findings include:

  • Practitioners discriminating against older adults including managing issues relating to alcohol use (e.g. vitamin injections) rather than referring them for alcohol treatment and young adults being prioritised over older people;
  • Some of the reasons given are perceptions that older people are too old to change and that it’s not worth intervening because of life expectancy. There is also a sense that the care needs of older people are too complex for treatment;
  • A study for Alcohol Research UK featured in the report found that “three out of four residential alcohol rehab services in England exclude older people based on arbitrary age limit”;
  • The Equality Act 2010 states that “services must provide equal services regardless of age or disability”. It is therefore unlawful for services “to provide inferior services, or refuse to provide services because of a person’s age, unless there is a good or sufficient reason”;
  • Adults over the age of 65 are excluded from 46% of clinical trials for alcohol treatment/interventions.

Writing in the report foreword Baroness Hayter who is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm said, “Contrary to popular belief, harmful drinking is not the preserve of the young. In fact, many young people have followed advice and favour the gym or sports field over the pub and have been brought up never to drink and drive. Indeed, the only age group in the UK where drinking has increased  is the 65-74 year-old. So our consideration – and prevention – of problem drinking has to turn to the retired, or those who’ll approach it over the coming years.

“Drink Wise Age Well has drawn up guidance and recommendations for a swathe of organisations and professions, providing a vital tool in promoting health, happiness and a productive retirement for a growing generation.”

Key recommendations include:

  • Remove arbitrary age limits for alcohol services;
  • UK governments should develop alcohol strategies which incorporate age as a cross-cutting theme and explicitly recognise that older adults’ needs may be different from those of younger adults;
  • Following the example of the Welsh Government, convene an advisory panel to develop substance misuse guidance focused specifically on older adults;
  • Inform alcohol services of their legal obligation to provide equitable care and take action if services are consistently discriminating against older adults;
  • Ensure decisions on whether or not to refer someone to rehab is made on ability to benefit. Age alone should not be a barrier to referral;
  • Ensure older adults are included in clinical trials and research studies unless there is good justification for not doing so.

Julie Breslin, Head of Drink Wise, Age Well said, “Changing lifestyles and the older demographic means for the first time in recent history older people in the UK drink more and are more likely to exceed recommended guidelines than other age groups, but help and support has not yet caught up. Older people are being written off – sometimes unlawfully – and we believe this report has the potential to change that.”


Supporting quotes 

Caroline Phipps, Chief Executive of Drugaid said: “I am delighted that Wales has been recognised as leading the way in the UK in addressing the needs of older adults in our alcohol strategies and policies. But there is still a long way to go and this report provides a road map to fairer treatment for older people who have alcohol problems.”

Thelma Abernethy, Director Addiction NI said: “The most noticeable increase in alcohol consumption in recent years in NI has been among those aged 60-75, this is at a time in life of potential increased health issues, medication and our body processing alcohol in a different way to when they were younger.  There is an important piece of work to be done in educating this age group of the impact of alcohol as they age, so that they can make informed choice. Alcohol awareness is everyone’s business and we need to increase knowledge and upskill people working in a paid or voluntary capacity with the over 50s about the true impact of alcohol as they age, so that they can start to have those earlier conversations with the over 50s to help them make informed choice about their usage.”

Dr Richard Piper, CEO of Alcohol Research UK and Alcohol Concern, said: “Harmful drinking among the over 50s is on the rise and the way we tackle it requires an urgent response. This report, together with our research report on age discrimination within residential rehabilitation services, shows very clearly that concerted action is needed to ensure that those drinking at harmful levels can access the support they need. We urge policy-makers and practitioners to implement the recommendations in these reports fully and without delay to save lives and to improve outcomes for drinkers and their families.”