‘In the west, if you don’t drink, people think there’s something wrong with you’
It’s a drinking festival with a difference – no-one gets drunk as there is no booze. STEPHEN NAYSMITH reports on the battle to cut down alcoholism in the over-50s
WRITING on a website to help combat alcoholism, “Tiffers” outlines a common problem. Although rarely “drunk”, she still drinks at least double the recommended limit every week, she says.
“I am really keen to cut my drinking right down or quit,” she wrote on the Soberistas forum. “I just have a real problem with visualising social situations with no alcohol.”
This is a major concern, according to experts. In fact, finding ways to socialise and activities to take part in away from alcohol is not easy – testament to the nation’s problematic relationship with drink.
“I live in the west of Scotland, where if you don’t drink, people assume there is something wrong with you,” Tiffers added.
An alcohol-free “mindful drinking festival” at Glasgow’s Briggait today will attempt to kick start a change in that culture. A first for Scotland, the free event is organised by online support group Club Soda – after successful similar festivals in London.
The event is being backed by the Drink Wise Age Well campaign (DWAW), a lottery-funded initiative to tackle the problem of excessive drinking among the over-50s.
It is this group which throws up some of the most worrying statistics about Scotland’s drink culture, and where people are most resistant to change.
Drinking above the UK Government’s recommended guidelines is declining in every age group bar the over-50s.
Counter to general trends, many people increase their drinking in later life, sometimes because they struggle to adapt to retirement, or becoming emptynesters with more time to fill after children have left home. Some drink more after losing a partner and being left alone.
“Drinkers aged 55-64 in Scotland are more likely to exceed the recommended weekly guidelines than any other age group,” says Julie Breslin, head of the DWAW programme.
Worryingly, only a minority are receiving help with this with estimates suggesting fewer than 10 per cent of those judged in need of clinical help by the NHS are actually in treatment.
Many of those with risky drinking habits in later life are middle-aged, middle-class drinkers, who won’t be affected by minimum unit pricing, and who reject nanny state messaging.
“Around 70% are drinking at home, alone. It is a very hidden population.”
Alarmingly, if they do seek help, they may face discrimination from health services, she adds. “They can be viewed as too old to change and are more likely to be offered medication than talking
therapies, or other support.” While this group tend to be resistant to change, viewing them as impossible to influence is misguided, she says. “We know that for 4% of late-onset drinkers alcohol begins to become a problem after the age of 40, so it is wrong to write them off as ‘too late to change’ or because ‘the damage is already done’.”
Some are overlooked by health experts because they are not drinking at levels deemed “harmful” – but in fact they are because their age means they could still be causing themselves significant damage, she says.
DWAW is calling for specialist older adult services and experts within existing treatment services.
Ms Breslin added: “Resources are tight, but the ageing population is going to grow and grow. We can’t leave this group isolated and forgotten.”
Meanwhile groups like Soberistas reach people who would never go near an addiction clinic or Alcoholics Anonymous, she says.
Club Soda, like Soberistas, grew from grassroots online support for those looking for ways to cut down on their drinking, while not feeling abnormal.
Glasgow’s Mindful Drinking Festival will offer visitors a chance to sample the wares of non-alcoholic drink providers, try mocktails made by expert mixologists and find out about alternative alcoholfree drinks to challenge the soft drink monotony of cola or orange juice.
These days, the alternatives are vast – from “no-sin gin” to kombucha (fermented tea), and from alcohol-free cocktails to craft ginger beer. With nothing available above the legal limit of
Older drinkers could still be causing themselves damage because of their age
0.5 per cent alcohol, participants can even take their children along.
Club Soda co-founder Laura Willoughby MBE said since the first festival in London last year, she had had immediate requests from individuals and organisations in Glasgow to bring the event to Scotland.
“The most common request we get is for ideas about what to drink instead of alcohol, so we have curated our favourites, and created an event for everyone. The festival is great for those going sugar-free, on a fitness regime, drinking more mindfully, or going alcohol-free. There are many reasons why people may want to swap out a few alcoholic drinks for something a bit healthier.”
Drinkers toast with beer at brewery bar restaurant – but the new festival is showing you can have fun without a bevvy.