Voices of older people affected by a loved one’s alcohol or drug use

Posted 04.04.2017

The 2011 census showed a 35% surge since 2001 in the number of older carers, to nearly 1.3 million. Whilst we do not know exactly how many of them are caring for someone who uses drugs or alcohol, there is evidence that a minimum of 1.5 million people are affected by someone else’s drug use (1), and other studies suggest that this number may be up to 8 million. Whether caring for adult children with drug or alcohol dependency, or a partner who may also have dementia or another age-related health condition, there are certainly large numbers of those over 55 who are affected in this way.

Marjorie’s story

These are people like Marjorie. Marjorie is 71, and has a 47-year-old son, Michael, who drinks and is addicted to drugs. He is also diagnosed with schizophrenia. He lives alone but requires continual emotional and financial support from Marjorie who struggles to know when to get involved and when to stand back.

‘I am his unpaid carer,’ she says. ‘I handle all his money – on the days I don’t see him I don’t give him any money. I pay all his bills… I was tidying up his garden… he would never do that alone.’ Marjorie lives in constant fear of what may happen to Michael when she leaves him alone, and regularly spends time trying to calm him with activities such as gardening, so that she can take a phone call or pop out for a few hours.

Getting older is only exacerbating the problems: Marjorie is fearful about the future and worries about how her son would cope if she died or became too ill to look after him. ‘The older I get the harder I find it to cope. I don’t have the energy to do what I would have done twenty years ago.’

Marjorie’s story is not unique

Marjorie is not alone. Since 2014, Adfam has been funded by the City Bridge Trust to work with older people in London who have been affected by a loved one’s drug or alcohol use. We have learned a lot about the needs of this vulnerable, and often marginalised, group.

Like Marjorie, many older carers are isolated, experiencing stigma due to their family member’s substance use and thus not wanting to talk to friends about it: ‘Yes… I need help, and as I said, friends, they don’t understand do they?’ Others have struggled to access support from services: ‘They tell us we’re carers and we are – we are caring for our adult children – but we don’t think of ourselves as carers. We’re just parents, it’s just what we do. But that means we don’t know that this support is there. We don’t know that we’re carers so we don’t think to go to carers services for support.’

Guilt and self-blame are common for older carers, as they wonder what they ‘did wrong’ in their loved one’s upbringing to result in the addiction they have today: ‘I try to understand what caused it. Why does my child have an addiction? Could I have done something differently?’ The culture of alcohol and drug use has changed significantly over the years and so they struggle to understand what is going on, or to know when and how to intervene or make suggestions: ‘I just want him to stop drinking but people tell me that actually that could be dangerous – if he stopped suddenly then he could die. It’s very confusing, I just don’t know what is for the best.’

What does Adfam do?

Adfam’s project has focused on facilitating peer support in the form of a monthly group where older carers can come together, talk about what they are going through and learn from each other how to cope. Some sessions are facilitated by a trained counsellor, and there are regular social activities which enable the older carers to relax and take some time for themselves.

Marjorie finds the group beneficial: ‘…it was nice when I got [the invitation to the group]. It was good to have a meeting for people who were like-minded and who have similar problems and so you don’t mind going into details there.’

Anyone over the age of 55 who lives in London and is affected by a loved one’s substance use is very welcome to attend and people can find out more information on the Adfam website. We have published a resource bringing together all that we have learned working with older carers: “No one judges you here” voices of older people affected by a loved one’s substance use.

1. Copello, A, Templeton, L and Powell, J (2009). Adult family members and carers of dependent drug users: prevalence, social cost, resource savings and treatment responses, UK Drug Policy Commission.