Are we failing older people with drinking problems? New guidance for practitioners developed

Researchers developed guidance with Aquarius, an alcohol, drugs and gambling charity

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Cover of the guidance and the pocket guide

New guidance from leading academics and a UK-based alcohol charity has urged health and social care practitioners, including substance use specialists, to rethink the needs of older people with drinking problems.

Older people’s increasing use of alcohol is of growing concern, with high proportions of people in older age groups across the UK drinking above the recommended daily guidelines and an increasing number are drinking to ‘harmful or mildly dependent’ levels.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University developed the guidance with Aquarius, an alcohol, drugs and gambling charity based in the Midlands region of England. Drawing on a range of sources, existing research and evaluations of alcohol projects specifically targeting older people and their families, the organisations developed two new resources – a brief pocket guide and a longer guidance document.

The documents, by Professor Sarah Galvani from Manchester Metropolitan University and Independent Research Consultant Lorna Templeton, offer an insight into the complexities of older people’s drinking and the level of care required.

Professor Galvani, Professor of Adult Social Care, said: “The population of the UK is getting older and this rapidly ageing population will bring both opportunities and challenges for health and social care services.

“Older people seeking treatment for alcohol use are often in poor health and have a range of complex social, health and other care needs associated with their substance use. Evidence suggests that the complex health and social care needs of older people with problem alcohol use requires a different approach.”

Prof Galvani
Annette Fleming, Chief Executive of Aquarius, said: “Unfortunately, there is little reference to alcohol-related harms among older drinkers in public health strategies, including those looking at ageing or substance use, and there are few separate services available to help older people and their families.

"That’s why this guidance is so important – it will provide practitioners with often overlooked insights into what is different about older people’s drinking, the needs of older people whose alcohol use is becoming, or has become, problematic, and an overview of how best to support them.”

The guidance, which was written following research with individuals, families and practitioners, also highlights how family members can be greatly affected by the problematic alcohol or drug use of a relative.

Such difficulties are likely to be exacerbated by the multiple and complex needs which are associated with problematic drinking in older age groups.

Guidance for practitioners

Professor Galvani added: “Many of the family members caring for problematic drinkers will themselves be older and potentially struggling with a range of health and social concerns. This increase in drinking and the problems it can bring for older drinkers and their families has not been sufficiently recognised.”

The guidance was primarily based on research by Manchester Metropolitan academics who evaluated Aquarius’s The Time of My Life (TOML) service, in partnership with the University of Birmingham. The TOML service was funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and was an alcohol service supporting people aged 50 years and older who wanted support with alcohol-related problems.

Data was collected from 22 direct users of TOML services, 15 service users who attended group activities, five family members, seven volunteers and peer supporters, 10 paid TOML staff, and from a survey of 337 professionals and practitioners from a range of other services.

Professor Galvani said: “What made a significant difference to the engagement of older people in the service was its practice model which enabled practitioners to build good relationships with the people they were supporting. This was a holistic model that included visiting people at home, helping out with benefits and practical tasks, or accompanying to appointments, as well as discussions about their alcohol use. It is important for commissioners to recognise the long-term value of this type of practice model.”

For a copy of the guidance, please visit ‘Older people and alcohol: a practice guide for health and social care’ for the full document or ‘Alcohol and Older People: Learning from Practice’ for a copy of the pocket guide.

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