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BASW launches guide for social workers on alcohol use in older people

Ahead of Joan Bakewell’s BBC Panorama investigation of older people’s drinking habits, BASW has launched a guide aimed at spotting the signs of alcohol abuse, and expressed concern that the excesses of this group can be overlooked by hospitals.

On Monday, Panorama looks at why an estimated 1.4 million people aged 65 and over are regularly drinking in excess of recommended limits.

The BBC claims that last year, “there were more admissions to hospital of pensioners for alcohol-related injuries and illnesses than 16-24 year olds”.

The BASW guide, Alcohol and Older People, aims to support social workers in their practice. It will also be relevant for other social and health care professionals.

The guide explains some of the reasons that older people may be turning to alcohol, including loneliness, fear of ageing and becoming more socially excluded. Often older people may become involved in “drinking networks” simply to have some company.

Commenting on the guide’s publication, BASW Manager Ruth Cartwright said: “This is a really neglected problem. As a hospital social worker, I sometimes saw instances where older people who were clearly suffering ill health as a result of alcohol were being mis-diagnosed. If the illness was clearly an alcohol related illness, it was picked up, but not always, if alcohol abuse was implicated and mixed in with other conditions.

“There seems to be an assumption that alcohol abuse is something that only younger people do, but today’s older people were yesterday’s teenagers.

“Alcohol use by older people is often discreet and this leads to it being less likely to be detected. One older drinker we spoke to said: ‘We’re just not loud about it’.

“Older people are frequently more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, and they need to be very cautious about thinking that they can carry on drinking like they did when they were younger.

“There is possibly a bit of a reluctance to address this issue. Social workers need to look at underlying issues.

“Many older people struggle to cope with loneliness and loss of ability, their problems are often dismissed by society and they receive a less good service in many areas of life, including medicine.

“As social workers, we’re well placed and skilled to explore these issues with service users and inform them about available help and support, if we are allowed the time to hear their story and to treat them with dignity.