Why is it that for many baby boomers one drink is never enough?
It’s Saturday, not quite noon, and I’m meeting a friend for ‘coffee’. The funny thing is, coffee won’t even be mentioned. We’ll scan the menu, then one of us will say: “Well, I’m going to have a cheeky little Merlot.” And the other will say: “Now, that’s a good idea!” Then we’ll decide that getting a bottle is more economical than buying two large glasses, even if we are just having the one. (Yeah, right.)
An hour later, and our coffee morning has turned into a boozy afternoon. When my friend has to dash, I say I’ll stay and have a coffee and check my emails, but then order another glass of wine… a small one obviously: I’m not an alcoholic.
At home, I crack open another bottle. It’s almost wine o’clock after all. I’ve drunk a lot, I know, but I don’t have a problem. And if I have, then I’m not alone. According to recent reports and surveys, there is growing evidence that many UK ‘baby boomers’ (those born between 1946 and 1964) are regularly binge drinking.
More than 50% of men and 22% of women over the age of 50 now binge drink
One of the most recent studies – by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and based on data from 4,295 adults – revealed that more than 50% of men and 22% of women over the age of 50 now binge drink. The study also says that retired men are “significantly more likely” to binge drink.
In 2016, the Drink Wise, Age Well study – the biggest ever undertaken and involving more than 16,700 respondents, all over the age of 50 – revealed, amongst other things, that almost a fifth of respondents drink four or more times a week, 62% of them often drinking alone.
Over a third turn to drink when depressed and 76% drink to take their mind off their problems. Identifying as LGBT also puts an older person at higher risk of binge-drinking. The same goes for those who don’t have a ‘significant other’, who live alone and who have a longstanding illness or disability.
I pour another glass of wine as I ponder these facts and figures. I’m onto white now – a bottle I bought on a recent visit to the French Riviera, which I’d intended to give to someone as a gift. (Yeah, right. Again.)
I wasn’t always like this. In 1978, at the age of 16, I was the only person in my group of friends who didn’t have a taste for alcohol. I tried it all – from stout to Sangria, beer to Babycham. Every sip made me make a face: I just didn’t like the taste. At parties, however, I’d pinch my nose, then neck whatever the teen host had found in their parents’ drinks cabinet.
In later life, thanks to having a long-term relationship with someone who drank a lot, I developed a kind of ‘if I can’t beat him, I’ll join him’ attitude and hurled myself with alacrity into joining him in regular bouts of binge-drinking. Within a few years, we had a hundred rows under our ever-expanding belts and I was able to knock back as much booze as the next alcoholic.
These days, although I don’t drink that often, I still really go for it when I do. I can’t just have one. One always leads to another. Then another.
That was over 20 years ago and, since then, I haven’t managed to break the habit. These days, although I don’t drink that often, I still really go for it when I do. I can’t just have one. One always leads to another. Then another. I’m a self-confessed binge-drinker. And I’ll say it again – it would appear I am not alone.
Retired lorry mechanic, Colin Kennedy, 67, also admits he’s a binge drinker: “I’ve drunk beer since I was 13. All my friends drink heavily. It’s difficult staying sober when you have hard-drinking mates. I’ve recently started drinking during the day – just the odd beer here and there – mainly due to boredom. I’ve got a few hobbies but sometimes I’m not in the mood, so I’ll just flick on the TV and down a few cans – maybe more than a few some days – but I don’t think that makes me an alcoholic or a binge-drinker.”
Hilary Parsons, a 58-year-old accountant, reckons the amount she drinks isn’t a problem, saying: “I work hard and, when I go out – usually on a Friday night – I like to drink lots and act a bit daft. I know it’s not healthy and that I should know better at my age, but for me, it’s the best way to let my hair down.”
Psychologist Emma Kenny says: “The over-50s are experiencing a collision of variables unique to their era. Age is no longer a limitation, with youthful attitudes stretching decades longer than in previous generations. Social media means that it’s easy to believe that everyone is having a gin and tonic and this reinforces a permission base. The affordability of alcohol has also enabled it to be part and parcel of the weekly shop, as opposed to being purchased for special occasions.”
A short film called Vintage Street released earlier this year shows that alcohol is indeed no longer just for special occasions. The film was made in order to raise awareness of older people’s drinking habits and to encourage people over 50 to make healthier choices about alcohol.
But why this sudden surge in booze-bingeing baby boomers? What is it about people born in the 1950s and 1960s that causes them binge on drink?
Was it the unmonitored TV advertising in those faux-decadent decades that sneakily sucked them in? If you drank Campari, for example, you’d obviously been ‘wafted here from paradise,’ (not Luton Airport) and anyone wanting to feel at one with the world (whilst simultaneously pulling ‘dolly birds’) would surely be a fool not to test out ‘The Carlsberg Effect’.
Maybe we were all brainwashed into thinking that drinking would make us more alluring and glamorous. (Tell that to my solicitor friend Angela, who had one too many at a work function recently and fell flat on her face in front of several important clients!)
“I definitely feel more attractive after a few drinks – more confident too,” says 56-year-old care worker Carol Boyle. “Whether I actually am or not is debatable. But feeling that I am is enough to make me want to keep drinking.”
Of course, many say they’re just being sociable when they drink. Some do it when they’re feeling down and others do it out of sheer boredom, especially those in the 65 + age bracket, who often find that retirement isn’t what they expected it to be.
The Drink Wise, Age Well survey said that a whopping 88% of the high risk drinkers claim to have suffered negative experiences and feelings after drinking. Regardless of this, most over-50 binge-drinkers (64%) say they’re not worried about it and don’t believe they need help.
It suddenly hit me last year that I was nearing 60 and drinking like a teenager, and at times, acting like one
Anne Russell, 61, a therapist from London, is not one of the 64%. She says: “It suddenly hit me last year that I was nearing 60 and drinking like a teenager, and at times, acting like one. I’d vow to stop, but one drink would lead to ten and, once again, I’d be a mess. I went to AA and was shocked at how many people of a certain age were there.” Anne hasn’t had a drink since her first meeting and insists that her life is so much better now.
I think about Anne. She sounds a lot like me. Perhaps I’ll do the same as her: stop with the binge-drinking, maybe give up completely. But I’m already making a shopping list in my head for tomorrow… and wine is on it. Surely just one little glass won’t hurt…
* According to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) figures for 2016, there were 5,208 deaths of people aged 50-plus wholly attributable to alcohol, compared with 3,582 in 2001. The largest number of alcohol-related deaths was in the 60 – 64 age group. Alcohol-related deaths have increased dramatically among over-50s, while falling in younger age groups.
* The NHS website outlines the perils of binge-drinking, stating that drinking too much on any single occasion can put you at risk of accidents resulting in injury or death, misjudging risky situations, losing self-control and having unprotected sex.
* Illnesses you can develop after 10 to 20 years of regular binge-drinking include cancers of the mouth and throat and breast, heart and liver disease, stroke, brain damage and damage to the nervous system.
STOP BINGE-DRINKING BY…… giving yourself a limit
… eating before or while you drink
… drinking a glass of water between each alcoholic drink
… avoiding situations that – and people who – encourage you to binge