June 25, 2011

UK: Let Elderly People Enjoy a Few Drinks for Goodness Sake

LONDON, England / The Daily Express /  Express Comment . June 23, 2011

By Robert Gore-Langton

A NEW report suggests that the nation’s pensioners – possibly the most patronised social group on the planet – are turning into a bunch of alcoholics.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the country is facing a burgeoning public health crisis. You can imagine these shrinks in a huddle around the conference table. “Old people, we haven’t terrified them for a while. Let’s highlight a thing we’ll call ‘hidden addiction’ and release a lot of statistics to remind them that they must worry about their booze intake like everyone else.” 

Health professionals underestimate the benefits of social contact

The new recommendations are that pensioners reduce their daily intake to just 1.5 units for men – that’s a pathetic half a pint of beer – and for women to an even lower limit. It’s not enough to inebriate a baby hedgehog let alone a self-respecting pensioner who’s had a long day.

That soothing glass of sherry you enjoy while cooking the supper is now off the menu. That half bottle of wine you didn’t quite polish off the night before now has to go down the sink. And as for those who look longingly towards the gin bottle of an evening (never mind lunchtime) well, you are all doomed, quite doomed, to quote Private Frazer. At this rate they’ll be banning the elderly from buying booze in supermarkets. “Sorry sir but I’m afraid you look over 65.” It is true that sensible people reading this latest “report” will turn the page with a bored yawn, knowing full well that like all these how-to live edicts it has no connection with common sense or the reality of life as it’s already lived by the vast majority.

Only a collection of psychiatrists could miss the obvious benefits of getting a bit drunk each evening when you are old and crumbly. There is of course no humility in the report. No admission that these recommended units of alcohol are plucked out of the air, which you can bet they are. The report even floats the fascist idea of screening the elderly for “addiction” when they visit their GP. If you wish to ask your GP whether you are drinking too much that is entirely a matter for you. If your GP suspects excess alcohol might be causing you problems he or she might legitimately inquire. But it is not a “burgeoning public health issue”. It is a private health matter.

For sure there should be a general awareness that chronic addiction can strike any age group. For the old the great problem is not alcohol but the cause of excessive drinking, which is often just life itself with bereavements and boredoms. But of all the friends of the old, alcohol is surely one of the best. For many the routine of going to the pub or club is a cherished point in an otherwise isolated day. The benefits of daily social contact – and a few drinks – far outweigh the damage done to livers and short-term memories. My parents, in their mid-80s, are a case in point. They love their wine, which they enjoy buying, contrasting and comparing. But according to the official guidelines they are a pair of hopeless alcoholics who by rights should be living under the arches and sleeping in shopping trolleys.

But they are not. They are simply getting through the numerous trials of old age aided by a great sense of humour and mutual devotion. A few glasses of wine each with dinner is their reward to themselves. They enjoy it, they need it and it does them a power of good. For many a generous whisky of an evening reaches the parts painkillers, ointments and prescriptions can’t. Booze can make you depressed, no doubt about it. But for many a drink is part of a looked forward-to daily ritual that helps keep the world’s awfulness a little at bay. Besides we have been here before.

Seven years ago there was a leaflet issued by Alcohol Concern entitled I Don’t Mind If I Do… It encouraged elderly readers to ask for help to cut down if they felt they might be drinking too much. It was announced – as if it were a bombshell – that 2.5million oldies were drinking as much as five days a week. The horror! I am surprised it’s not seven. In May this year another report was released – a major study in Germany where their pensioners have a camel’s thirst for the booze – indicating that a regular daily alcohol intake helps stave off dementia. The limits of that intake were uncertain so they recommended the usual baby hedgehog levels. No wonder people have lost faith in the competing advice given out by health professionals and turn with a derisive snort to the drinks cabinet.

Milions enjoy nothing but a refreshing cuppa. And good for them. I don’t deny that many old people drink too much and that it can make them unpleasant and dependent. But living a long time is a burden, especially if you are on your own. How about a report on that? There are no guidelines, for example, as to the acceptable daily units of sorrow or grief or loneliness. The assumption is that alcohol is the intruder into our lives. It is not, it’s invited. And what is good health for? Are we to deny ourselves a few daily drinks in old age just so that we can sit sober in a sunset retirement home which smells of cabbage and pee for a few extra years?

That seems to me like the worst deal of all. The Royal College of Psychiatrists should stick their report and send out corkscrews and congratulations to the old for soldiering on as well as most of them already do.

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