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Hidden drinkers: Why do older people in sheltered accommodation use alcohol?

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Published on 22 October 2018

Why are older people turning to alcohol?
Why are older people turning to alcohol?

Thousands of leaflets have been distributed to the elderly after pioneering university research revealed the reasons behind older people in North East sheltered accommodation turning to alcohol.

In the first study of its kind, University of Sunderland graduate and public health expert Dr Annette Payne has carried out research examining why those in sheltered accommodation are consuming alcohol.

This growing issue has received almost no attention, prompting Dr Payne to interview older people living in accommodation in the Newcastle area.

Now her findings have led to the distribution of a public health leaflets by Newcastle City Council warning about the dangers of excessive drinking.

Dr Payne’s research revealed there were a number of factors behind older people’s drinking habits. These included:

  • Lack of social contact
  • Mental health
  • Domestic violence issues
  • Family relationships
  • Lack of employment


Dr Payne, who works in Public Health at Newcastle City Council, said: “Contrary to many perceptions of ‘later life’, this research found that older people’s lives do not get easier as they age, so the reasons they turn to alcohol are both complicated and specific to the individual.

“As we grow older it gets harder for the body to cope with the effects of alcohol. It’s also important to remember that alcohol mixed with medications can make people more susceptible to falls, accidents and greater mobility problems.

“Current alcohol guidelines just group everybody together and don’t take into account the vulnerability of older people to alcohol. The leaflet we created has been given out to make people aware of the risks and the effects drinking can have as they age.”

It is hoped the research carried out by Dr Payne, who was awarded her PhD by the University of Sunderland, will help improve awareness of this hidden generation of drinkers.

Dr Payne says she was moved by the stories of many older people who she interviewed for the research, with some having suffered trauma earlier on in their lives which had led them to excessive alcohol consumption.

She added: “One elderly woman told how her marriage had broken down and she’d been left to care for a child. She was unable to cope.”

The research concludes that much more needs to be done to support older people living in sheltered accommodation when it comes to limiting alcohol consumption.

Older people are the group most likely to lack knowledge of what current alcohol units and limits are. One of the recommendations emerging from Dr Payne’s work is that an older person specific alcohol unit guide should be developed and implemented.

Dr Payne added: “There also needs to be improved multidisciplinary staff training to facilitate an increase in the identification of those older people who consume over the advised alcohol limits.

“Policy should consider the move away from a one size fits all model of alcohol management to a more individualised approach to support the adjustment of later life events.”

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, as we get older, our bodies change, losing muscle, gaining fat and breaking down alcohol at a slower rate. This means older people are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, often reacting at a slower rate.

Dr Payne’s PhD supervisor, Professor Jonathan Ling said: “Annette’s work highlighted several factors influencing the decision to drink. These included mental health, domestic violence, social contact, family and work.

“She found older people’s lives did not simplify as they age and that the reasons for using alcohol are complicated and individualised. Her work has helped to identify these issues, and has led to the development of an older person specific alcohol guide for Newcastle City Council. This is the first piece of work that has focused on the alcohol use of people in sheltered accommodation and has the potential to shape how we view and engage with people living in sheltered homes.”