Joan Bakewell: 'Am I drinking too much in old age?'

Panorama reporter Joan Bakewell examines the issue of alcohol abuse among the elderly

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Joan Bakewell, the government's former voice of older people, investigates the hidden problem of alcohol abuse in her generation and confronts her own social drinking habits.

Despite now approaching my ninth decade, and two years after I first examined issues around ageing and retirement for the BBC's Panorama programme, I have been invited back to look at another problem - this one often hidden - that affects older people.

It is about alcohol abuse.

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I live alone and though I mostly enjoy drinking with friends I will also drink when I am on my own”

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The producers rightly understood that it takes someone old to really understand what it feels like to be old oneself.

So many younger people - let's say the under-60s - assume that they can correctly gauge and predict what the old are thinking and feeling, what they might prefer, how they might like to spend their last years.

Daily drinking

I can lend a voice to many in my own generation, those with whom I've grown up, those with whom I've shared my working life and the many friends I've gathered along the way. Of course, I don't speak for everyone who's old - that would be a gross over-simplification. We don't all, once we've got our bus pass, merge into one undifferentiated cohort of behaviours.

There is another sense in which I qualify to make a programme that deals with the increasing problem of late onset alcoholism among the old. No, I am not yet within that category. But I am someone who drinks regularly - most days, in fact.

I live alone and though I mostly enjoy drinking with friends I will also drink when I am on my own. This puts me smack in the middle of the category of those at risk. What's more, like many of those who have 'taken to the drink' I have more time on my hands than I used to and like many others, I have enough money to buy the drinks I enjoy.

Panorama: Find out more

BBC Panorama logo
  • Joan Bakewell presents Panorama: Old, Drunk and Disorderly?
  • BBC One, Monday, 10 September at 19:30 BST

I have just returned from holidaying in France with a car boot rattling with the sound of a very nice Muscadet. So, yes, I am a sure fire target for the health police.

I was put through my paces. This meant keeping a record of my own drinking patterns for a month.

It was during July - a season of chilled white wine, sunny days with a glass of something refreshing in hand, parties in gardens, on terraces, by the sea.

Government guidelines for women allow a daily limit of 3 units a day.

But I didn't always refuse a top-up or even the second drink that would take me to that limit.

And when comparing my habits to the advice handed down, it did make me query who the people are who draw up these rules. And what do they know of our real lives?

More seriously what do they know of the dilemmas of older people and the problems they confront as they face old age?

Loneliness, isolation

The loss of friends, personal bereavement, sudden redundancy or retirement, loneliness and isolation can all feel like good reasons to reach for the bottle. I met several such people and heard their stories.

There is 73-year-old Barbara Smith who told me how the death of her husband played a big part in causing her drinking to spiral out of control.

Her drinking reached as much as a bottle of wine every day - around four times the government's recommended limit.

And Barbara, who is now getting support to help her cut down her drinking, is not alone. Experts advise that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week, yet more over-65s are drinking six or seven days a week than any other age group.

Units of alcohol

  • Bottle (75cl) of wine - 10 units
  • Small (125ml) glass of wine - 1.5 units
  • Standard (175ml) glass of wine - 2.1 units
  • Large (250ml) glass of wine - 3 units
  • Pint of weaker (3.6%) beer - 2 units
  • Pint of stronger (5.2%) beer - 3 units
  • Bottle (330ml) of beer - 1.7 units
  • Can (440ml) of beer - 2 units
  • Alcopop bottle (275ml) - 1.5 units
  • Small (25ml) shot of spirits - 1 unit
  • Large (35ml) shot of spirits - 1.4 units

Source: NHS

I also met a number of qualified professionals who are helping snatch older problem drinkers back from the brink, and add years to their lives.

In Hampshire, the local Primary Care Trust has the highest number of hospital admissions of over-65s in England for alcohol-related problems.

They have responded by setting up a specialist alcohol team at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth to help identify and tackle the issue.

For many elderly people drinking at home, it is quite easy to drink more than they realise and to creep above safe limits says Dr Richard Aspinall, a consultant hepatologist in Portsmouth.

"We think of a very visible social disorder, consequences of young people binge drinking on a Saturday night in our town centres, but what's much more hidden is quiet, below the radar drinking at home."

He and others are both wise and sympathetic to the issue of older people and drinking. They do not disapprove of social drinking, but don't want it to become an addiction.

I'll be keeping their phone numbers to hand. You just never know what the years will hold!

Panorama: Old, Drunk and Disorderly? is on BBC One, Monday 10 September at 19:30 BST or watch online afterwards via iPlayer (UK only) at the above link.

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