Older drinkers - a timebomb for carers and health services

Issue date: 09 June 2009


University of the West of England A report Alcohol and Older People: A Review of issues and responses by researchers at the University of the West of England, investigating the implications for care provision for older people with alcohol problems, has identified that health care practitioners and alcohol services are likely to need to move up a gear to cope with a predicted increase in resources needed.

The report was commissioned by the St Monica Trust, a Bristol charity supporting older people in the West, to investigate the situation in the UK in the light of evidence presented by international research. As a result, through its Community Fund, the Trust is now funding organisations involved in drug and alcohol abuse in the South West to help improve understanding of the scale of the problem and to look at creating new support services for older people with addiction problems.

Explains Gerald Lee, Director of the charity, “We have been working closely with organisations in the region who deal with the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse everyday. To date, most alcohol and drug abuse initiatives have been directed towards the needs of younger generations. Our evidence points to the fact that many older people and their families also need help with addiction problems, and today they are simply slipping through the net.”

“The numbers of older people in the United Kingdom is increasing. One result of this is that the costs of caring for those with specific health problems associated with periodic or chronic heavy drinking is likely to mushroom,” says Professor Moira Plant who co-wrote the report with Professor Martin Plant at UWE's Alcohol & Health Research Unit: “Greater acceptability of alcohol consumption in public, particularly amongst women in the baby boomer generation and more affordable and widely available alcohol has lead to growing numbers drinking more than the recommended levels. A significant increase in support for carers and services for older people with alcohol-related healthcare problems will be needed. We need to research the extent of heavy and problem drinking amongst older people, including those residing in residential care facilities. Moreover, training urgently is required to enable carers to identify and manage (or obtain help to care for) alcohol-related problems amongst older people.”

Professor Plant explains: “The degree to which the issue of alcohol in relation to older people is under-researched in the UK is remarkable. In the past as people aged they tended to reduce their alcohol intake however the generation of people born after the Second World War have been living in times when drinking habits have changed dramatically. In the next few years alcohol-related problems amongst older people are likely to exert greater pressure on health and other social services. The types of problem involved include links between alcohol and bone density that can cause osteoporosis leading to a greater risk of bone fractures; chronic liver disease; risks associated with drinking and taking other medications. Alcohol in combination with sleeping tablets causes drowsiness, in combination with arthritis medication can cause drowsiness and with medication for diabetes can cause headaches. Alcohol in combination with Warfarin or other tablets to thin the blood can alter the drugs' effects and increase the risks of bleeds.

"In addition there are risks associated with accidents, hypothermia, depression, dementia and bereavement. This all has serious implications for services and health care practitioners but also importantly for unqualified carers like children of older people with alcohol problems.

"Most older people do not drink heavily or harmfully. It should be emphasised that drinking in a controlled and responsible way is good for health and social interaction. But what we are dealing with here is a problem that is certainly growing, but whose magnitude remains unclear.”

The report recommends that people should continue to have the right to enjoy habits such as drinking but that regular health assessments should be carried out, particularly when people are taking medication for other illnesses or conditions. Staff caring for older people need to be trained to monitor and assess alcohol consumption and possible alcohol related problems. Carers need to be provided with adequate support in relation to management of alcohol amongst the people they are looking after. Links with specialist agencies need to be established and if local alcohol services are inadequate steps should be taken to create effective provision.

“Most importantly,” says Professor Plant, “Research could usefully be conducted to examine the extent of heavy drinking and alcohol related problems amongst older people in residential care.”



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