Skip to main content

Calling Time: Addressing ageism and age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research

This report reveals evidence of age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research. The findings are based on a survey of professionals, interviews and focus groups with older adults with alcohol problems and a summative review of relevant policy and published literature.

In Great Britain, the Equality Act 2010 made age discrimination illegal. Age discrimination can either be direct or indirect. Direct age discrimination occurs when a difference in practice or policy based on age cannot be justified. Here we identify various examples of direct age discrimination including arbitrary age limits which prevent older adults accessing alcohol rehabs, younger clients being prioritised over older adults in terms of alcohol treatment, older adults not being offered alcohol treatment because of their age and older adults being excluded without good reason from studies on alcohol. Indirect age discrimination occurs when people from different age groups, with different needs, are treated in the same way, with the result that the needs of people in certain age groups are not fully met.

Examples identified in this report include alcohol services unable or unwilling to carry out home visits for older adults unable to attend the service and alcohol service premises or rooms within the premises inaccessible to older adults with limited mobility.

This discrimination is likely to be due to pervasive misconceptions, attitudes and assumptions based on stereotypes, for example older adults are incapable of change or alcohol problems predominantly affect young people. Older adults may also be discriminated against because of socially ingrained ageism which means that younger people are valued more by society. Age discrimination is rarely a result of malign intentions or motives and people are often not even aware of the prejudices they have.

Whilst older adults may not know that they are being discriminated against on an individual level, older adults that we spoke to felt that in terms of alcohol younger people are prioritised and targeted more, there is more concern for younger people, professionals are not going to “bother so much” with older adults and that younger people are more likely to receive funding for residential treatment because “they think you’re a bit of a spent penny at a certain age”. Both people with alcohol
problems and older adults are often assigned a devalued social identity with the result that older adults with alcohol problems may be particularly likely to experience social exclusion and are some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Older adults have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age and ageism presents a major barrier to reducing alcohol-related harm in our population. In the UK, harmful drinking is decreasing across the whole population but increasing in older adults. This pattern is also evident in other countries. Combined with an ageing world population, the shift towards higher levels of drinking in older age groups has profound implications worldwide and the World Health Organisation has identified alcohol-related harm among older adults as an increasing concern.

Ageist policies can be identified easily and abolished in a relatively short period of time. The same cannot be said of more indirect and subtle forms of ageism, for example, unconscious age-based rationing of alcohol services such as alcohol rehab. Age discrimination and increasing alcohol use in older adults is a national priority that requires more than superficial attention and a piecemeal approach. This report contains a set of recommendations that, if implemented, will be a considerable step towards eradicating age discrimination in alcohol policy, practice and research.