Life

Helpline to tackle surge in at-home binge drinking among over-50s during pandemic

The Covid crisis has led to increased alcohol consumption among older adults but now an over-50s-specific helpline has been launched and, as one man tells us, where there's help, there's hope

'As people age, their bodies find it harder to process alcohol, so the number of people over 50 who are binge drinking is really alarming'
Maureen Coleman

FOUR years ago, almost to the day, Liam Breen attended a meeting that helped save his life.

He has no recollection of how he got there or who else was in the room. His clothes were bloodstained from an altercation the previous day; his eyes bloodshot from too much whiskey and too little sleep. But he wasn't drunk. He'd put the whiskey bottle down at around 4am and somehow managed to get himself along to the Drink Wise Age Well meeting in Omagh, where he lives.

The Co Tyrone father-of-three had tried other avenues over the years in an attempt to stop drinking. There'd been spells in hospital, rehab and drying-out clinics but every time he felt well enough, he'd go back on the booze.

Court appearances, fractured relationships and unemployment didn't deter him when he was on a binge. By the time the 61-year-old musician reached out to Addiction NI's Drink Wise Age Well group, an alcohol service for the over-50s, he had almost given up hope. When a family member informed him that he wouldn't be getting an invitation to his daughter's upcoming wedding, Liam knew he'd hit rock bottom. This was his last chance to get help.

“The house I was living in was in a bad state. I was in a bad state,” recalls Liam. “First Housing came out to see me and realised I was in trouble with alcohol. They contacted the Drink Wise Age Well group on my behalf, to see if they could help me. I was desperate.

“On the last day of my drinking, someone rang me from Drink Wise around 9.30am and asked me to come along to a meeting the following day. I'd already half a bottle of whiskey in me by that stage. I kept drinking all day, until the early hours.

“Somehow, I managed to make that meeting the next morning. My clothes were covered in blood as I'd got into a fight during the day. I'd been on a drinking binge for two weeks and was physically and mentally rough.

“It was a group meeting. I didn't speak at all. If I could've put a chair through the wall, I would've done so. I was so demoralised and exhausted from it all. But I felt a sense of hope; that I was being handed a lifeline of some sort. I just needed to hold on to that hope.”

The purpose of the meeting was to encourage the attendees to adjust their drinking habits, but knowing his own addictive, all-or-nothing personality, Liam realised he had to cut booze out completely rather than cut back. With a renewed determination, the support of the group and one-to-one therapy provided by Addiction NI, Liam took his last ever drink on November 24 2016.

A regular smoker and cannabis user too, he made the decision to give up both habits a few days later. Since then, he's been sober and drug-free. Through therapy, he learned why he'd been running away from himself and using drink and cannabis to escape. Six months after attending that first meeting, he was there at his daughter's Spanish wedding, suited and booted and clean.

“That first meeting gave me hope,” he says. “The more meetings I went to, the more I learned about myself and the nature of addiction.

“When I was in the middle of it, I couldn't see a way out. I'd been depressed for a long time and felt like I was stuck in a hole. I had nightmares where I was in a pit and couldn't get out. The walls around me were slippy and every time I tried to climb up them, I slid back down again.

“Drink Wise allowed me to hang on to some hope. I'm not a religious man but I prayed a lot too. I attended my meetings every Thursday until lockdown in March. I've only ever missed two meetings and I still pray very hard.”

Lockdown was a challenging time for Liam who says he'd taken 10 steps forward beforehand, only to take six steps back when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. At one point he was almost tempted to indulge in drug use but pulled himself together. He knew self-medication wasn't the answer and that one drink would lead him down a dark path.

But while Liam resisted the urge, new research released this week by Addiction NI shows that more than one in five over-50s in the north are binge drinking at least once a week during lockdown.

An Opinion Matters poll, commissioned by With You, reveals that almost 10 per cent of over-50s claim alcohol is negatively affecting their mental health. Meanwhile, nearly one in four say the pandemic means they're more likely to drink alone and 15 per cent say they normally drink more than 10 units, when drinking.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that people over 55 are most likely to drink at hazardous levels, with consumption among this group increasing in recent years. The research shows the scale of this issue looks set to increase in the north over the next few weeks, with nearly one in 10 over-50s saying they are likely to drink even more due to a second lockdown.

The poll also shows how over-50s drinking can impact their loved ones. More than one in four people with parents who are over 50 are concerned about at least one of their parents' drinking habits since March.

To help more older adults access the support they need, With You is launching a new over-50s specific alcohol helpline using learning from its Drink Wise Age Well programme funded by the National Lottery Fund. It is a free, national helpline running seven days a week which will provide confidential advice, information and support to anyone aged 50 or over who may be worried about their drinking. Just call 0808 8010750 or visit www.wearewithyou.org.uk for more information.

Alex Bunting, group director of Addiction and Mental Health Services, Addiction NI/Inspire Wellbeing, said issues such as trauma, bereavement and retirement have led to older adults drinking more in recent years. The Covid-19 restrictions have exacerbated these issues, with many older adults unable to see family or friends and turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

“People's drinking habits have changed as a result of the pandemic,” Alex says. “Nearly 80 per cent of over-50s we work with drink at home alone, hidden from view.

“As people age, their bodies find it harder to process alcohol, so the number of people over 50 who are binge drinking is really alarming. The impact of this will ripple through families as well as support services and the NHS.

“Our work shows over-50s are most likely to reach out to a service that's specifically aimed at them. That's why we're launching this helpline. To anyone 50 or over who's concerned about their drinking, give us a call.

“You'll speak to someone who understand what you're going through and can support you to make healthier choices that will benefit all parts of your life.”

Reiterating Alex's words, Liam adds: “If back in 2016 someone had told me that in four years' time, I wouldn't be drinking or smoking, I would've laughed at them and said they were crazy.

“Knowing I had that support from Drink Wise Age Well was a huge blessing for me. If the support is there, take it. Pick up the phone. It's no exaggeration to say that it saved my life.”

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