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Alcohol abuse on the rise among elderly in Finland

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic
Alcohol use among retirees is on the rise in Finland, and the country is taking steps in hope of curbing baby boomer drinking.
Alaska Dispatch file art

Alcohol use among pensioners could bring big costs to Finland.

Experts fear that retiring baby boomers may over indulge to such an extent that Finland could soon be forced to deal with a large cohort with unusually high levels of alcohol dependence. Incorporating messages about alcohol into basic healthcare will be key to fighting the problem.

“Alcohol use among retirees is becoming more and more problematic, because there are more elderly people and they have learnt to use alcohol at ever earlier ages during active working lives,” says Pekka Heinälä, the chief physician at the A-Clinic Foundation which works to fight alcoholism. He says his organisation is already preparing to deal with the issue by co-operating with different agencies to find ways to identify heavy alcohol users when they access basic healthcare services.

Heinälä points to two main groups that deserve special attention.

”There are people who have drunk heavily during their careers and only work has interrupted their alcohol usage, so alcohol has set the rhythm of their life,” explains Heinälä. ”When the rhythm is lost or the person experiences setbacks socially or health-wise, then reasons to reduce alcohol usage disappear. There is more time and money to spend on alcohol, and it can be used in an attempt to fill a perceived void. Other older people will start drinking after retirement. This happens for example with the encouragement of friends.”

Concern over pensioner grannies

Older people’s alcohol use has risen since researchers began a study of the health of people aged 65-79 in 1985. The research shows that women’s alcohol consumption in particular has risen, while the rise in men’s consumption has been more moderate. Over the last 22 years percentage of pension-age women who are teetotal has fallen from 70 percent to 40 percent.

”It is definitely a taboo,” comments Maria Viljanen of the Finnish Association for Mental Health. ”Especially women of that age maybe have seen heavy drinking as inappropriate. They have anyway had strong restrictions on alcohol use in their youth. It can be shameful.”

Viljanen says that one reason for drinking could be retirement itself. According to her it is a dramatic life change and alcohol can assist in the adjustment.

”There are different reasons behind drinking, people do not become dependent on alcohol for fun,” notes Viljanen.

Inevitable health effects

Baby boomers are in the main well-off and in good shape, but that does not mean they can drink as they please.

”We are developing a group of elderly people who will keep drinking alcohol because they have more disposable income and initially their health is good enough to ensure that alcohol’s inevitable adverse health effects will not immediately end their lives,” warns Heinälä. ”This kind of heavy drinking group with impaired health is developing, that could if we are careless will become very expensive to society. With small interventions we could improve their quality of life and prevent large costs to society.”

Viljanen is of the same opinion, and adds that it is important to ensure adequate care for alcohol abusers in the future.

“There is a high threshold to admit alcohol problems,” notes Viljanen. “Healthcare personnel won’t necessarily notice older people’s alcohol problems. This depends on the municipality. Some get care and some don’t. In my opinion help targeted at older people who use alcohol to excess has increased, for example in Helsinki new strategies are taking into account that older people have their own places for treatment.”

“Finland will get a big bill from this, if proper basic healthcare and specialist substance abuse services are not put in place,” warns Heinälä.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.