Figures for NI women drinking themselves to death are catching up with the men ... that's one sort of gender equality we don't need
There must be more to the rise in alcohol-related deaths among females than cheap supermarket deals on offer, writes Fionola Meredith
In 1955, the Belfast-born author Brian Moore published a novel called The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. With terrible poignancy, it tells the story of a genteel, ageing spinster who has a crisis of faith and descends into alcoholism.
There is one particularly painful scene where Miss Hearne - having been loudly "stocious" the night before, singing and shouting while drinking alone in her rented room - must face the withering contempt of her fellow lodgers at the landlady's breakfast table in the morning.
I thought of poor Judith Hearne and her troubles when I read about the silent numbers of older women in Northern Ireland who are slowly - and, in some cases, possibly secretly - drinking themselves to death.
In 2013, 6.4 alcohol-specific deaths per 100,000 females were recorded in Northern Ireland, yet by 2016 the rate had risen to 11.8. That represents an extraordinary increase of around 84% in only three years.
True, it's nothing like the rate at which men are killing themselves with drink - across the UK the death-rate among men, in 2016, was more than double that for women - but it's still a shocking statistic.
And it's just one among several: throughout the UK, the numbers of women aged over 60 seeking treatment for alcohol dependency are also soaring. At this pace, women will soon catch up with men when it comes to wrecking their health and, indeed, shortening their lives by drinking to excess - and that's a form of gender equality we really don't want to see.
So, what has changed to cause this sudden, troubling rise?
The trite, frequently-offered explanation is that cheap supermarket deals on drink are largely to blame. The idea is that it's all too easy for women to stock up on low-priced wine, or spirits while doing the shopping, tucking them into the basket along with other everyday items, then over-indulging later, in privacy, back at the house.
Stay-at-home boozing is facilitated still further, it's suggested, by the home delivery option offered by many supermarkets, where you can have your order brought to your door for a small charge.
That way, drinkers don't even have to leave the house, which makes it still easier to hide the problem, perhaps even from themselves.
Times and attitudes may have changed since the 1950s, when drunken women were routinely scorned and reviled, but there remains a lingering double-standard when it comes to male and female inebriation - women are still judged more harshly - so there may be some truth in this theory.
But the widespread availability of cut-price offers cannot alone provide sufficient reason for so many older women taking heavily to drink, with such devastating consequences.
Another factor sometimes cited is the effects of retirement. A few years ago, the Priory Group, a leading provider of mental health treatment services, said it was seeing more women starting to drink heavily when they retired.
Psychiatrist Paul McLaren said: "A common pattern is for regular drinkers, who have had their consumption constrained by the structure of working, tipping into harmful drinking on retirement. Many of the women I see are retired professionals who never had issues with alcohol in the past."
For others, it could be a case of bad habits eventually catching up with them. The increase in death-rates among older age groups may be attributable to the misuse of alcohol that began years, or decades previously, according to the Office of National Statistics, and that applies to women as much as men. Dr Tony Rao, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says: "The latest statistics are a wake-up call to the rising problem of alcohol misuse in a generation of baby boomers that need urgent consideration by our public health and clinical services." The generation who grew up when it became socially acceptable for women to go the pub - previously a mostly-male preserve - may now be feeling the unfortunate effects of alcohol dependency in later life.
While Government health drives largely focus on young people, who are more prone to binge drinking - consuming numerous drinks in one session - older people, who are more likely to drink every single day, can be overlooked.
This is despite the fact the NHS spends vastly more on treating alcohol abuse in the 55 and over age bracket than on 16 to 24 year olds.
Older adults, as a group, are at greater risk from the effects of alcohol than younger people: they are more likely to hurt themselves through falls and other injuries while under the influence.
But when you take into account the fact that women's bodies do not tolerate alcohol as well as men's tend to do, the problems increase still further. The risk of alcohol-related liver diseases, memory loss and cancer is markedly higher for women than men.
Theories abound, but the troubling fact remains that nobody really knows why older women are drinking themselves to death in record numbers, especially here in Northern Ireland. Some of the reasons would be familiar to earlier generations: loneliness, disappointment, social isolation. These are age-old maladies that never go away. The grim legacy of the Troubles may play a part, too.
Dr George O'Neill, chair of Addiction NI, says that it can also be a response to redundancy, bereavement and the break-up of relationships. The women "sit quietly at home drinking and they are not disturbing anyone," he says. "They are not on the streets fighting and they don't attract a great deal of interest or attention."
Banning supermarket bargain drinks offers, or limiting the opening of late-night off-sales in areas where problem drinking is at its worst - another well-meaning, but flawed suggestion - won't make any difference to these women.
If they are dependent on alcohol, they will simply find another way to drink, just like Judith Hearne, with a cheap whisky bottle stuffed in her respectable-looking handbag.
The tragedy of these older female drinkers is that they are invisible. If we are to begin helping them, we first have to find a way to see them, before it's too late.