picture of male senior Alcohol And Seniors

Policy Issues

Alcohol is the most common drug used by seniors. For most older people, alcohol consumption is not a problem in their lives. However, approximately a quarter of a million older adults across Canada currently experience alcohol problems. However, only a very small percentage receive help.

People in communities across Canada may be keenly interested in helping seniors avoid developing alcohol problems (prevention) or helping them deal with alcohol problems if these do arise. People in a community often experience many barriers and a lack of resources along the way to having alcohol problems among seniors addressed appropriately. There are currently very few treatment services for seniors who have alcohol problems. Those that exist are stretched very thin, and often do not know whether they will still be around next year.

To some extent, the way that seniors alcohol issues are  responded to may reflect broader issues of how how seniors are seen in society, and how some social and health issues, such as alcohol, are stigmatized.


It is important to think about the different kinds of policies and priorities that can influence the kinds of help available for seniors  with respect to special services such as  alcohol. Consider:

1. Are seniors considered a Health Care Priority in your region? Your province? In Canada? Why or why not? If not, what could people do to change that?


2. How are seniors considered when local, regional, provincial policies are being developed? Are they treated as a burden? A financial drain?  What are the ways that resources allocated to services for seniors reflect that?


Or, are they considered a valuable resource? As people who have help create Canadian society? If there is a negative view of seniors, what can people do to change that political view?


3. Are seniors who have alcohol problems considered a priority group in the addiction services and other services in your region? Your province? Why or why not? If not, what could people do to change that?


4. Do seniors' organizations consider alcohol issues among seniors as an important health and independence issue?  What about other organizations that serve a significant number of seniors or   seniors? Why or why not? If not, what can people do to change that?


5.   How can we raise the profile of alcohol as an issue important to older Canadians' health and independence?



Other Policy Issues

There are other policy issues in this area that affect the lives of older adults. Here are a few to consider:


A. Drinking Guidelines for a Healthy Later Life

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) defines moderate drinking as one or two standard drinks a day. This guideline is based on consumption levels for adult men of average build who are in good health. The CCSA notes that: “Lower limits may be appropriate for some people because of lower body weight, and other differences in body composition and metabolism.” CCSA does not mention age as a factor.

Should there be "Moderate Drinking Guidelines" set out specifically for seniors? At present, many older adults report their doctors are telling them that drinking moderately is good for them, and some doctors specifically mention to their older patients that drinking red wine as good for prevention of coronary heart disease. Seniors also report that their doctors often do not ask how much they are currently drinking. Or if the doctors ask,  they don't explore it further to find out how large is that “just one drink”.

How can we assure that older adults, their families, and friends have good information on which to make decisions about alcohol use?  How do we assure that doctors  have good information about alcohol  issues on which to base their medical advice  to their older patients?


B. Getting Reliable Statistics on the Matter

Policy makers often make decisions about priorities based on how common a problem is and how much of an impact it is making on individuals or on society collectively. An important part of knowing how common a problem is through the use of  provincial and national statistics. Statistics must be reliable to be of any use.

The National Population Health Survey is one of the ways that people learn about a wide range of health issues, including alcohol use problems. However the questions in the national survey are designed more for younger adults and do not capture the types of problems that older adults experience.

How can we assure that we have good facts and reliable figures when talking about older adults and alcohol problems? How do we measure the social costs of alcohol problems among older adults?


C. Discrimination

Older adults are often refused service by health care services and by long term care facilities if they have a current drinking problem or had one in the past.  Or they are accepted only if they follow a set of rules that can restrict their lives considerably and infringe on rights that people commonly take for granted.  In many cases,  the restrictions and disqualification reflect

-  the stigma of alcohol problems

- lack of accurate information about the nature of alcohol problems, as well as

- lack of accurate information about appropriate ways of helping the person.

More and more long term care facilities will not admit a person to live there if he or she smokes. Many older smokers are also drinkers. Many older drinkers and smokers have serious health problems that negatively affect their ability to live independently. In most provinces, turning people down for essential services such as these would be considered a form of discrimination based on their disability. 

It does not matter whether discrimination is intentional or unintentional-- it is the effect of the discrimination that is relevant. If a particular rule or policy places a burden on one group because of a particular characteristic they have,  such as physical disability, that is discrimination.

There is a legal responsibility on departments, institutions, community agencies and organizations to reasonably accommodate the needs of people who have disabilities.  That includes seniors who have disabling conditions.


...Accommodation ... can be understood as a means of removing the barriers which prevent persons with disabilities from enjoying equality of opportunity in a way which is sensitive to their individual circumstances so that we all may benefit from their active participation in the community.

The duty to accommodate requires that the most appropriate accommodation be determined and then be undertaken, short of undue hardship.

The most appropriate accommodation is one that most respects the dignity of the individual with a disability, meets individual needs, best promotes integration and full participation.


Accommodation of a person's individual needs is required ...unless such accommodation would cause undue hardship for the person (or organization or company) responsible for making it.

 From: Ontario Human Rights Commission

How can we assure that these forms of discrimination no longer occur?

For more information on the prohibited grounds of discrimination across Canada, see the Canadian Human Rights Commission. All Canadian jurisdictions prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods, services,  facilities, and accommodation, where the discrimination is based on physical or mental disability.

All jurisdictions except Yukon, North West Territories, and Quebec prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods, services,  facilities, and accommodation, where the discrimination is based on dependence on alcohol or drugs. In New Brunswick and Nova Scotia,  it is previous dependence only that is covered. In Quebec, alcohol dependence is included the  "handicap" ground.





Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. "Moderate Drinking & Health: Questions and Answers". See: www.ccsa.ca/modpamp.htm

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Alert, "Moderate drinking"  No. 16 PH 315 April 1992.  See: www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa16.htm

Klatsky, A.L. (2001)  Should patients with heart disease drink alcohol? JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(15):2004-2006

Canadian Human Rights Commission. "Prohibited grounds of discrimination in Canada". See: www.chrc-ccdp.ca/publications/prohibit-motifs.asp

Ontario Human Rights Commission,  Discrimination and  Age: Human Rights Issues Facing Older Persons In Ontario



Page last updated Sunday, 31 October 2004

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