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'Different approach' needed to caring for older people with alcohol problems

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Nurses and other healthcare professionals have been urged to rethink the needs of older people with drinking problems.

Leading academics and a UK-based alcohol charity have issued new guidance to help health and social care practitioners understand the complexities of older people’s drinking and the level of care they require.

“Evidence suggests that the complex health and social care needs of older people with problem alcohol use requires a different approach”

Sarah Galvani

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University and Aquarius, an alcohol, drugs and gambling charity based in the Midlands, developed a pocket guide and guidance document (see PDFs attached below) offering “top tips” for health professionals working with problematic drinkers aged 50 and over. 

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

Among the tips included in the guidance are:

  •  Build up a full picture of the person’s needs and what other issues need to be addressed in their life;
  • Think about how volunteers or peer supporters could support older people;
  • Remember that older drinkers may know little about drinking guidelines;
  • Learn about co-existing physical and mental health conditions which an occur as a result of drinking;
  • Consider how to make your service as accessible as possible to older people;
  • Develop a library of resources as well as information on relevant local services.

The documents, by adult social care professor Sarah Galvani from Manchester Metropolitan University and independent research consultant Lorna Templeton, draw upon a range of sources, existing research and evaluations of alcohol projects specifically targeting older people and their families.

According to the researchers, people of an older age group have the fastest rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions and alcohol-related death rates are highest among those aged 55 to 64. 

Professor Galvani 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.” 

sarah galvani

sarah galvani

Sarah Galvani

She explained how older people with drinking problems were “often in poor health” and may 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,” Professor Galvani added.

Annette Fleming, chief executive of Aquarius, claimed there was “little reference” to alcohol-related harms among older drinkers in public health strategies.

She also noted there were few separate services available to help older people and their families in terms of substance use.

“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,” added Ms Fleming.

“The guidance will provide practitioners with often overlooked insights into what is different about older people’s drinking”

Annette Fleming

The guidance, which was written following research with individuals, families and practitioners, also highlighted the impact alcohol use could have on family members, who themselves were likely to be of an older age and therefore struggling with difficulties of their own.

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.”

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