Hugh Davenport grew up surrounded by a culture that didn’t think twice about alcohol consumption.
‘It was the late 70s and 80s,’ the now 61-year-old remembers. ‘Back then, there wasn’t a lot of media around the dangers of alcohol.’
When he was in his 20s, Hugh primarily drank copious pints of cider and beer when he went out to parties or to the local pub.
As the years went on, in his 30s and 40s, Hugh’s weekend drinking increased when he was out with friends. ‘I would get really drunk on the weekends,’ he admits. ‘I’d have four or five pints at the village pub on a Saturday afternoon watching the rugby, and then get home and tell my wife I’d had two.’
By the time Hugh hit 50, he would regularly drink glasses of wine or bottles of beer while watching the TV in front of the fireplace at home throughout the week.
‘My home drinking definitely increased in my 50s,’ the now retired university lecturer says.
‘I’d wake up the next morning and couldn’t remember the end of the film I had been watching.’
He recalls a party he and his wife cycled to when he’d had so much to drink, he couldn’t ride the bicycle home and had to walk back instead. ‘I would occasionally feel embarrassed the next morning after being drunk the night before – either from a physical injury or having made a total prat of myself.
‘But I didn’t think about alcohol damaging my liver or blood pressure. The fact I was pouring poison into my body didn’t strike me at all.’
On 23 March 2020, Hugh, his wife, and three grown children gathered to celebrate his 60th birthday. It was the same day Boris Johnson announced lockdown. ‘From that day, I would have a couple pints of strong beer at five o’clock and then probably a bottle of red wine every night,’ says Hugh. ‘It just became routine. We were stuck in the house without anything else to do.’
It’s no secret that lockdowns drastically changed the way Brits drank alcohol. Research has found that without pubs or parties, at home, late night drinking became very normal for thousands.
However, while younger generations are more likely to recognise the harms of alcohol, making the sober lifestyle a normalised choice, the drinking habits of people ages 55-64 have been on an upward trajectory since 2012.
Such is the issue, that it’s currently being covered in a Coronation Street storyline, with 80-something street stalwart Audrey Roberts constantly defending her heavy drinking habit.
‘What starts as recreational use in younger life can move into increased consumption and then a habit or addiction people cannot control,’ explains Michael Rawlinson of the Clouds House Treatment Consultant for The Forward Trust.
‘We know that addiction feeds off isolation, a sense of hopelessness and disconnection. The pandemic in many ways has been the perfect breeding ground for it. People seek comfort in alcohol.’
Even though Hugh often told himself and his children he wouldn’t have a drink, it would hit late afternoon and he caved. ‘I hated myself the next day,’ he admits. ‘I felt weak-willed and pathetic, like I was letting myself down.’
After four months in lockdown, Hugh felt his drinking habits needed to change. ‘There was no eureka moment,’ he says. ‘It was a build-up of not being able to resist a drink when I had said to one of my kids I would. Or one of them pointing out I was drinking a lot.’
Initially he started to keep track of his drinking on an app, slowly working his way down from 120 units a week – a little over eight times the recommended 14 units per week.
‘I started cracking on with three or four days of not drinking and then measuring out every single glass of wine or beer,’ says Hugh, who says he didn’t experience any withdrawal symptoms while minimising his consumption. He eventually went on to even succeed at avoiding alcohol for a full month in January 2021.
For the most part, friends and family have fully supported Hugh and even help to ‘call him out’ when they think he should stop drinking. However, some, he says, have been a bit ‘funny’ about it. ‘People who were used to me being the life and soul of a party,’ he adds.
Now, Hugh only drinks on the weekends, and does so with great moderation. ‘I see the next 30 years as ones drinking less. ‘I now know I will never get as drunk as I used to get. I just know that.’
Drinking too much alcohol at any age brings with it a series of health implications, but for older people, there are unique problems faced by having more than guidance suggests.
As muscle is lost and fat gained, alcohol is broken down more slowly, meaning a person becomes increasingly sensitive to the effects of alcohol, putting them at risk for falls and unintentional injuries. Heavy drinking can also make typical health issues experienced by older people worse: diabetes, high blood pressure, liver problems, osteoporosis, and memory problems.
One of the biggest issues about routine drinking is that it can easily shift from a bit of fun and relaxation, into a dependency – a strong desire to drink, a feeling that you can’t function or survive without alcohol.
‘A slide into alcohol dependency can be gradual and unexpected,’ explains Michael Rawlinson. ‘People, and older people in particular, who have been lonely, isolated and scared, are living with the hidden harms of addiction in greater numbers than ever before.’
Even though alcohol dependency in the elderly is ever-present, a shame exists that may keep them from getting the help they need. ‘There is still a huge amount of stigma around alcohol dependency,’ adds Michael.
‘The perception of someone with an addiction is still in many minds the park bench, the crack den, the needles in an alley. Older people who depend on alcohol may feel significant shame and guilt about this, which in turn prevents people from asking for help.’
Jane* hit her alcohol rock bottom when she had turned 50. The mother of eight returned to her home after a night out with her husband and blacked out from the vast amount of alcohol she had consumed at a party. When she woke, she found her knees were scraped, her watch was broken, and her car was scratched up.
‘I couldn’t remember what had happened,’ she says. ‘That was the first and last time I had ever blacked out. It was like I had passed out and gone to sleep. I had been fully awake, doing stuff I had no recollection of.’
Drinking had been a way of life for Jane. After her dad died when she was only 12, she went from a child to an adult overnight. ‘I tried to act grown up because I kind of lost my mother at the same time because she was struggling with the death of father and dealing with three kids,’ she remembers.
As she got older, Jane says she knew was overdoing it, often having between five and eight vodka sodas or wine – and would suffer from shakes and headaches every time she would attempt to reduce her drinking. ‘As soon as the alcohol was out of my system, I started feeling the withdrawal,’ she explains.
At 42, Jane tried to do something about her drinking problem, but never quite cracked it. ‘By this point, my older kids were teenagers and I noticed they were drinking a lot,’ she recalls. ‘I was concerned about it and wanted to say something, but they didn’t listen to me because I was doing the same.’
However, it was blacking out as a 50-year-old woman that stirred her to make the move to quit for good. ‘It was so terrifying,’ she recalls. ‘I just felt pitiful and shameful.’
While Jane has since used support groups and apps to give up alcohol, her husband of 23 years continues to drink as heavily as ever. As she turns 60, she reflects on how her marriage looks very different than she had imagined it.
‘I had envisioned an equal partnership, where we would always have each other’s backs. But I haven’t been supported,’ she admits. ‘I’ve mostly been sober for the last 10 years, but he stills goes for happy hour pretty much every day.’
Now, the hobby that united the couple for years – drinking – doesn’t exist any more.
‘We’ve definitely drifted apart,’ Jane says sadly. ‘We don’t go out together. I have tried to control his drinking, but it doesn’t work.’
After often being woken by her husband’s snoring and clamouring about in the middle of the night after a big drink, she chose to move into another bedroom in the house. But Jane isn’t prepared to entirely leave the relationship as their business and family depend on them staying together.
Now she sees a therapist and works out to keep her head clear. ‘I’m just taking care of myself,’ she says.
According to Michael, the journey to recovery from alcohol dependency will look different for everyone. ‘Like any serious mental health condition, it is not always a linear process,’ he explains. ‘Relapse can be part of the journey and should not be seen as a failure. Success will look different for everyone. People of all ages need to be able to ask for help and receive support, without judgement or stigma. It is never too late and recovery is possible at any stage in life.’
But everyone who chooses to drink alcohol is not necessarily dependent on it. There are older adults who simply enjoy the taste and tradition of a drink, sticking within the government guidance.
Average units in different types of booze
- A shot of spirit, 25ml: 1 unit
- Alcopop, 275ml: 1.5 units
- Small glass of wine, 125ml: 1.5 units
- Bottle of lager, beer, or cider, 330ml: 1.7 units
- Can of lager, beer, or cider, 440ml: 2 units
- Pint of lower-strength lager, beer, or cider: 2 units
- Standard glass of wine, 175ml: 2.1 units
- Pint of higher-strength lager, beer, or cider: 3 units
- Large glass of wine (250ml): 3 units
The NHS recommends:
- men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
- spread your drinking over 3 or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week
- if you want to cut down, try to have several drink-free days each week
Even so, there are special considerations for the elderly when drinking, such as how alcohol could make medical conditions worse or interfere with medications, people still fancy enjoying a drink over dinner or with friends.
When Sylvia Tillmann was a teenager growing up in Germany, she remembers her parents introducing her to the taste of wine around the dinner table. ‘It was with our Sunday meal,’ she fondly remembers. ‘There was no heavy drinking in the family. I rarely saw my dad do it and my mum just occasionally enjoyed a glass of wine. Everything was very much in moderation.’
After leaving her family home, Sylvia moved into a house by herself and continued with the moderate drinking passed onto her by her parents. ‘I felt strongly that I could not open a bottle of wine with my food because I’d be sitting on my own like an alcoholic,’ she recalls. ‘I only opened alcohol when I had friends around.’
Throughout her young adult years, Sylvia never once got drunk. ‘I always felt I had a really healthy relationship with alcohol in the way I enjoyed it. I didn’t use it to mask anything or make myself feel better.’
‘When I was younger and saw women in their 50s getting drunk, I thought it looked disgusting – before I knew it I was doing the same’
Victoria* 56, says:
‘When I was 15, I had my very first drink. My uncle was having a party at his house and managed to drink so much cider that I threw up on the stairs and then completely blacked out. I was incredibly embarrassed the next morning. After that, binge drinking became very routine for me.
When I was drunk, everything was fun and games – I loved being the life of the party. But actually, there were times I got myself into really dangerous situations. A little over three years ago, when I was 52, I left my house for a cycle ride, stopped for some drinks at a pub, and ended up at a house full of men, only to return home at 11 in the morning.
On mornings following a big drink, I had to drag myself out of bed to get to work. Once, I nearly threw up at the train station on my way in and had to call in sick.
When I was younger and saw women in their 50s and 60s getting drunk, I thought it looked a bit disgusting. But before I knew it, I was 50 and doing the same.
A year ago, at 55, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD. I had suspected I’d had it for years but was scared to find out in case it affected my chances of work or if friends would judge me. My doctor told me I’d be prescribed tablets, and that I couldn’t drink while taking them, so I made sure to drink everything in the house before she started me on them.
Honestly, the tablets didn’t keep me from drinking multiple glasses of wine and cocktails when I was out. The combination of the medication and the alcohol made me so sickly and really paranoid. Even though I live my own, I felt shame about going into my house after getting wasted.
By December 2021, I decided that things had to change. Even though I never cared much about being an ‘older’ woman who drank, I was growing increasingly aware of how unattractive my drinking habit had become – the skin on my face was getting redder and I was developing a muffin-top wine belly. But I also just didn’t like the shame of getting wasted anymore.
I’ve been dry for nearly 60 days now and I feel fresh, more alive. I downloaded an app that tracks how many dry days I’ve been dry and had so much satisfaction each time I tick off another day without drinking. In thinking about the future, I’m certain I will just have to be ‘tee-total’. I know myself well – I’m an all or nothing type of person and moderating alcohol just isn’t for me.’
Sylvia gradually drank more regularly when she moved in with a boyfriend – enjoying one or two glasses of wine when they would have dinners out – but even still, she never drank to excess.
‘For the last few years, I have lived on my own again, and I’m not as strict as when I lived by myself last time,’ Sylvia, now 55, says. ‘I will open a bottle of wine on my own now.’
About three years ago it struck Sylvia that she was drinking more or less, every day. ‘I was working part-time,’ she explains. ‘So my main meal was at lunch time, around two o’clock. I would have a glass of wine with my food, never more. If I told friends I had a glass of wine in the afternoon, I’d sometimes get a few raised eyebrows, but it was more of just a cheeky joke. They don’t seem to be worried. But the regularity of my drinking did make me think.’
Even though an opened bottle of wine could easily last her five days, Sylvia grew concerned about whether or not she was developing a dependency on alcohol. She decided to start experimenting with sober months – typically in January and October – to ensure she wasn’t alcohol dependent. ‘I was really surprised and relieved that I could go the whole month without any cravings,’ she says.
‘That was the proof. I was fine and not close to dependent on alcohol in any way. So I went back to my small glass of wine each day. Sometimes on the weekend, I’ll have a small gin and tonic while I’m cooking. Drinking, pottering… I really enjoy the experience of it all,’ she says, with a smile on her face. ‘It really is about the enjoyment, not a way to cope or relax.’
While the drinking habits of older people often fly under the radar, it is an issue that needs immediate discussion, says Tony Rao, a Visiting Research Fellow in Alcohol and Mental Health in Older People.
‘Older people have grown up with drinking habits that have harmed their health more than any other generation,’ he explains. ‘The reduction in drinking with age hasn’t happened to same extent in the baby boomer population.’
Tony adds that 23% of alcohol specific admissions to hospitals in England in 2019/20 were for patients aged between 55 and 64 and that over the past five years, the number of deaths attributable directly to alcohol has increased by a third in people aged 50 and over.
‘But older people fail to see it as their problem,’ he concludes. ‘This tsunami of alcohol misuse is already upon us and has taken its toll on our NHS. If we don’t tackle this problem head on, the worse is still to come.’
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