Problem drinking a growing trend among over 65s

'It took me until the age of 55 to become an alcoholic,' Phil Collins writes in his memoir Not Dead Yet.
Chris Jackson

'It took me until the age of 55 to become an alcoholic,' Phil Collins writes in his memoir Not Dead Yet.

For Phil Collins it started at home in the long afternoons, drinking a glass or two of wine in front of the England versus West Indies Test match.

In 2011 the former Genesis frontman had decided to retire from music and move to Switzerland to devote himself to his family.

"I stopped work because I wanted to be a dad at home," he said in a press conference on Monday in which he announced a comeback tour.

"As bad luck would have it, as soon as I retired, my family split up. I didn't have anyone to go home to. That's why I started drinking."

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Instead, he found himself bored and kicking his heels, alone on the shores of Lake Geneva. Collins never previously suffered from a reliance on alcohol - even in the heady decades where he revelled in the intemperate world of showbusiness. But after divorcing his third wife Orianne (with whom he has two sons aged 15 and 11 and has since been reunited), he started drinking in earnest.

Collins, 65, says he initially justified the drinking by believing, "I deserved a break in my life where I could do anything, whatever I wanted".

In a separate extract from his new memoir Not Dead Yet, out later this month, he writes: "It took me until the age of 55 to become an alcoholic. I got through the heady 1960s, the trippy 1970s, the imperial 1980s, the busy 1990s. I was retired, content, and then I fell. Because I suddenly had too much time on my hands."

The afternoon glass of wine turned into a couple of bottles. Before long he was downing vodka straight from the bottle for breakfast. Eventually he ended up in a Swiss intensive care with acute pancreatitis.

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He remembers lying on what well might have been his deathbed, listening to doctors inquire of the family nanny whether or not his will was in order.

Today, Collins is straightened out and (almost) on the wagon - he still permits himself the odd glass of wine but has eschewed spirits for the past three years. His story of rapid decline and fall, though, is one that resonates with many of his age.

'WHY NOT?'

Increasingly, the over 65s are becoming society's great problem drinkers. Retired, wealthy and bored their children having long left home, many over-50s can relate to the same curse that afflicted Phil Collins. There is even a cocktail recipe known as the "empty nester": part cabernet sauvignon, part tequila, part triple sec, part lime juice.

A study of more than 9000 people, published last summer, concluded that drinking among the over-50s had become a hidden "middle-class" phenomenon, with the higher somebody's income the more at risk they are.

The number of over 65s admitted to hospitals in England and Wales for alcohol-specific disorders increased by 40 per cent between 2007 and 2014. But over roughly the same period the elderly population increased by just 11 per cent.

"People who are a bit older tend to be regular drinkers," says Emily Robinson, the deputy chief executive of Alcohol Concern.

"It's strange because this group of people can be particularly health conscious. We do know if you earn more you are likely to drink more and in retirement it can be easy to add new habits and keep old ones. The whole "why not?" thing can make people feel drinking just isn't a problem."

NEED FOR HONESTY

For Carole, a 57-year-old owner of a wealth-management company based in the north of England, her problems started, much like Phil Collins, with a divorce.

Carole and her former husband have two grown-up children, now aged 28 and 26, who had already left home. When her marriage of 28 years collapsed she found herself rattling around the spacious family house.

"I remember thinking this is going to be awful and I need to drink wine to get through it," she says.

"I started off having a couple of glasses. Towards the end it was a bottle every day. The most I would ever have drunk would have been 10 glasses in a night - which is a hell of a lot. I still came to work and was very successful. One of the problems about drinking is the more you drink, the more you can drink."

The main physical side effect she experienced was piling on weight - nearly five stone in two-and-a-half years. "Obviously I'm an intelligent woman so knew the safe limits," she says. "Alcohol just keeps you in a bad place."

Feeling overwhelmed and out of control, Carole decided to make a phone call from the Ritz Hotel, where she was meeting a private client, to the Harrogate Sanctuary, a bespoke service for people with drinking problems. She has now been sober for almost 21 months.

"A lot of my friends drink too much," she says. "A few were quite hard on me because people want you to do it as well. I think more people like myself need to be honest about it."

A HIDDEN POPULATION

Earlier this year, a new £25 million lottery-funded project was launched across Britain to attempt to change behaviour and reduce alcohol-related harm among more than a milllion over-50s over the next seven years.

Research commissioned by the scheme found 17 per cent of over-50s class themselves as "increasing risk drinkers". Among the older adults surveyed who said they were now drinking more than they previously did, 40 per cent blamed it on retirement, 26 per cent on bereavement and 20 per cent on a loss of sense of purpose.

"It's a very hidden population," says Julie Breslin, the programme lead on the project, called Drink Wise, Age Well. "For most people working life is a structure. At the point of retirement there isn't that routine in place. What we are seeing is people for whom drinking has been banished through their lives, then at the point of retirement things start to change for them and it becomes problematic."

The research also found that despite the warnings about what drinking is doing to people's health, the younger generation is paying far more attention. Indeed, it is those aged between 55 and 64 that are the demographic now most likely to suffer from alcohol-related death.

"The baby boomers have very liberal attitudes towards alcohol," says Dr Tony Rao, a consultant psychiatrist and one of the country's leading experts in substance misuse among the older population. "Those who are now in their mid-50s and above have very different attitudes towards drinking compared with the puritanical youth of today who are giving up everything. It is a bit of a time bomb."

BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE

Dr Rao works in a hospital in Southwark, and while he began his career treating alcohol-related conditions among the old dockers of London, now increasingly sees those who have retired from lucrative careers in the towering office blocks of the City.

The 51-year-old says he often encounters middle-class and middle-aged couples who have shared a bottle of wine together every night for 20 years and developed serious health problems in the process.

Even those problem drinkers who never get to the stage that Phil Collins did, can still find themselves lying on a hospital bed.

"They develop long-term harms like cancer, a stroke, and high blood pressure," Dr Rao says. "It's not until something happens with them that they realise it's too late."

 - The Telegraph, London

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