Drinking until you drop

Alcoholism in older people is a growing problem and it’s not just the drinker it affects – families need support and help, too, says Deborah Wain

In his 40s, Keith* had had a brush with alcoholism, though both he and his family believed he had managed to escape its worst excesses. But as he neared 60 and retirement from his job as a senior finance officer loomed, he began drinking again – at one point downing two litre-bottles of vodka a day. By 67, he was dead.

For Jeanette*, coping with her husband’s battle with alcoholism took a terrible toll on her own life and health. She was consumed by anxiety and felt she no longer knew the man she had shared a loving relationship with for 25 years.

“You feel abandoned because you’ve had such a close relationship and yet it’s vanishing. I didn’t know my husband any more,” she says. “He was vacant and frightened. All his vibrancy and humour were no longer there.”

Sliding into depression and finding it impossible to carry on with her job, Jeanette sought help from Al-Anon Family Groups, the national organisation that supports relatives and friends of alcoholics. She attended group meetings each weeknight and says it helped her to “recover her life and sense of herself” beyond Keith’s alcoholism.

The key was understanding that Keith was struggling with a chronic, progressive disease and neither he nor she were to blame, she says.

“You learn that your partner is dealing with a severe illness. While the awareness doesn’t dispel the sense of loss, Al-Anon can help you to manage and accept it and remain a productive member of the family and of society.”

In 2016, a report by experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists identified alcohol abuse among older people as a growing problem, exacerbated by the fact that those affected are “invisible addicts” – because much of the drinking is done at home, including in care homes.

While older people are likely to drink for the same reasons as those in other age groups, factors related to ageing – lifestyle changes due to retirement, social isolation or long-term ill-health – may trigger it.

You feel abandoned because you’ve had such a close relationship and yet it’s vanishing. I didn’t know my husband any more” – Jeanette

Older people and those close to them face significantly more barriers than others in getting access to help with alcohol problems, according to Dr Tony Rao, Visiting Professor of Addiction in Older People at London South Bank University and a member of the group that wrote the report.

“Ageism plays a part. Sometimes people think an older person has only got their drinking left in life, so why stop them? This can mean they go on drinking for many years until there is a crisis.”

He is calling for improvements to care services to offer timely and prompt detection, treatment and follow-up for older people.

Jeanette, 67, now helps others through Al- Anon and says: “Treatment services are hard to access, even for younger drinkers, but help is probably less available when you’re older. In Keith’s case, also, when he relapsed he was soon drinking heavily and it led quickly to a critical stage of alcoholism.

“It’s so difficult, as society doesn’t see alcoholism as an illness. There’s no question of what happened to Keith being about weakness or poor character. I have the utmost respect for him and the superb husband and father he was.”

Jeanette’s story is typical of those who seek Al-Anon’s services, according to a spokeswoman.

“People who have a loved one who has a drinking problem tend to focus all their time, energy and resources on the drinker,” she says. “This can be isolating and draining emotionally, physically and even financially. By finding some support they will hopefully realise that they are not the only ones affected and they can bring the focus back to themselves and their own wellbeing.

“It is important to remember they did not cause their loved one’s drinking, so they cannot cure or control it. Their own welfare is just as important.”

*Names have been changed

There are 800 Al-Anon support groups across the UK and Ireland. Visit www.al-anonuk.org.uk or call the helpline on 020 7403 0888.