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Voices of older people affected by a loved one’s substance use

Adfam’s Older Carers group is funded by the City Bridge Trust of the City of London to address the isolation faced by older carers of those with drug or alcohol problems. Looking around this community room in central London at the assembled group, they could be here for any reason: five women of a similar age, some chatting quietly, others waiting cautiously for the meeting to begin.

The 2011 census showed a 35% surge since 2001 in the number of older carers, to nearly 1.3 million. Whilst we do not know exactly how many of them are caring for someone who uses drugs or alcohol, there is evidence that a minimum of 1.5 million people are affected by someone else’s drug use, and other studies suggest that this number may be up to 8 million. Whether caring for adult children with drug or alcohol dependency, or a partner who may also have dementia or another age-related health condition, there are certainly large numbers of those over 55 who are affected in this way. Evidence suggests that those who are older often have high levels of need, but face a number of barriers when seeking support for themselves.

Older people, in particular, face a number of barriers when seeking information and advice: previous bad experiences, an unwillingness to seek information, an underestimation of their own needs, the complexity of ‘the system’ they are forced to negotiate, and professional attitudes can all obstruct older people from gaining useful and timely information, advice and support4. It is also known that carers generally are less likely to access services such as respite.

An Adfam staff member welcomes the group and suggests a round of introductions. Some of the group already know each other, but there is a new face too. The women hold back, typically slow to acknowledge their own significance, but, with encouragement, they begin to open up. A final group member slips into the room part-way through the introductions, in which a litany of struggles with drugs and alcohol within the family become apparent: a son with a 20-year cannabis and drinking habit who can’t hold down a job or live independently; a daughter who has spent a £100,000 inheritance on her heroin addiction; a niece who is spiralling out of control with multiple drug use following her mother’s death.

It seemed likely to us as Adfam staff that some of the known challenges of isolation and stigma faced by families of drug users could be further compounded in a large city like London, where many areas have transient populations and communities may no longer maintain traditional social connections. This was why Adfam approached the City Bridge Trust to fund a project for older carers of those with drug and/or alcohol problems.

Now, two years on, Adfam has learnt a lot about the needs of carers affected in this way. This report aims to share what we have learnt so that other services can better address the needs of this vulnerable and marginalised group.