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East of England NIHR study informs new guidance on alcohol use in care homes

An image of care home residents.

A study led by the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with the Care Quality Commission (CQC), has found that care home residents can see an improvement in their quality of life if they are allowed reasonable access to alcohol.

The ‘Alcohol use in care homes’ study, funded by the NIHR, was set up to explore the availability of alcohol in care homes and policies relating to alcohol use that are currently in practice across the sector.

Based on the findings, the University of Bedfordshire has now produced a new set of guidelines for care home staff and members of the public on the availability and management of alcohol in care homes, with additional input from the CQC. The guidance states that care homes should aim to strike a balance “between minimising risk and maximising quality of life.”

The study found that care staff saw a variety of benefits when residents were allowed access to alcohol, including increased wellbeing and confidence, improved appetite and enhanced social participation.

The research discovered that, in many care homes, alcohol was available regularly. Staff might serve it at mealtimes, there might be a bar available at the home, or there may be a drinks trolley. However, other care homes operated a complete ban on alcoholic drinks, with others providing alcohol only on rare occasions, such as at Christmas or on birthdays.

Dr Sarah Wadd, is based at Bedfordshire’s Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care and led the study. She said: “People living in care homes should be supported to have as much choice and control of their lives as possible. It is important to remember that just as health has value, so too does pleasure. The goal is to find a balance between minimising risk and maximising quality of life. Our research has shown that this isn’t always happening in practice. We have produced good practice guidance for care staff and a guide for care home residents and the general public”.

Within the homes that allowed alcohol, residents were supported in their decisions as to whether the benefits of alcohol outweighed the risks. Where risks were identified, strategies were put in place to reduce them, and residents were made aware of the possible consequences.

The study has highlighted the importance of consulting care home residents on aspects of their care where they can have a meaningful input, and the importance of autonomy for those living within a care setting.

Dr Martyn Patel, NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) East of England Lead for Ageing Research, said of the study: “It is a delight to see a study that focuses on person-centred care and barriers to achieving personal autonomy in care home residents. This section of society has historically been underserved in clinical research, and this study helps redress that balance.”

Amy Hopwood, policy manager at the Care Quality Commission, said: “It’s been really valuable to work with the University of Bedfordshire on this research. As a policy manager it has given me the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the issues care home providers are facing around this particular subject and has been a catalyst for the creation of better guidance, both for providers and for inspectors and assessors.”