COVID-19 impacts alcohol support services for older adults

A new study involving Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) researchers has shown that face-to-face alcohol treatment support is crucial for older adults.

During COVID-19 alcohol services had to move to remote help and the study shows this limited their ability to fully meet the needs of their older service users in particular.

Dr Paulina Trevena and Professor Lawrie Elliott, researchers in GCU’s Department of Nursing and Community Health, carried out a qualitative study of alcohol services in the UK with the University of Bedfordshire’s Institute of Applied Social Research.

The study, ‘Addressing the needs of older adults receiving alcohol treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic’, was commissioned by Drink Wise, Age Well, a programme led by We Are With You. Leading UK drug, alcohol and mental health charity, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, We Are With You, works with more than 100,000 people in over 120 locations across Scotland and England.

The research explored the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown on older service users, including on their alcohol consumption; how alcohol services have adapted and supported older service users, and how staff experienced these changes; the short and long-term implications for service provision, and how service responses could be improved.

Dr Trevena said one of the key findings from the qualitative study was that face-to-face contact is crucial for older adults.

She said: “We found that face-to-face contact with service users is indispensable. Under current COVID-19 restrictions alcohol support services have been mostly over the phone or online but these pose barriers and challenges for older adults, especially accessing online support.

“Most of the service users expressed a clear preference and need for face-to-face support. It helps combat loneliness, a frequent reason behind drinking in older age, and facilitates a better understanding of alcohol interventions, particularly for those with speech or hearing impairments.

“Going to meetings with counsellors and peer support groups also gets people out of the house and provides a structure, which is very important for older adults. This means COVID-19 has impacted greatly on alcohol services’ ability to fully meet the needs of their older service users.

“In Scotland, we found that none of the interviewees were accessing online support groups which people in other parts of the UK were making use of. We need to bear in mind that there is a trend towards moving services to remote provision, and how we can reach older adults needs careful consideration. We need to keep in mind there is a large group that just cannot access the internet, in particular the over 70s. Phone support also does not work for everyone.”

The study involved phone and online interviews with 15 alcohol services staff and 30 service users aged 55 plus from July to September 2020, from seven alcohol treatment services providing support in urban and rural areas of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Staff interviews focused on how services had adjusted their provision and responded to the needs of older service users, how staff had experienced the changes in working practices, and the perceived short and long-term implications of these changes for service provision.

Service user interviews focused on the physical health, mental health and social consequences of the pandemic for older service users, including impact on drinking patterns and their experiences of receiving alcohol support.

A number of recommendations were made which will help to improve and shape services in the future, and inform governments on what works best for older adults’ alcohol provision.

Among the recommendations for future service provision were to maintain accessible and flexible phone support for older adults; that remote service provision should be provided in addition to, rather than instead of, face-to-face support; to strengthen links with existing community health and social care services to prevent older adults falling between services and ultimately preventing unnecessary hospital admission; and to ensure older adults who wish to engage online are adequately supported to do so.

Dr Trevena added: “The key findings were that the impact of COVID-19 on alcohol use among older adults is mixed with some people drinking more than usual, some drinking less or the same, and some maintaining abstinence. Many people are struggling to stay off drink or drink at healthy levels during the pandemic.

“Although many older adults have found talking over the phone helpful, remote support over the phone or online is not suitable for everyone. For instance, those with speech impediments or hard of hearing, or with serious mental health issues cannot access it. However, for people in rural remote areas, where travel to appointments is often an issue for both service users and providers, mixing phone and face-to-face support where feasible might be the best way forward.

“The results of this study are important for the future because there is a general move towards putting more health services online or phone calls but this research shows that with older adults face-to-face support is essential and remote support cannot be used instead of face-to-face meetings.”

Find out more about the study here.

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