The unpalatable truth - how we oldies love our wine

It was ten to six when I arrived at my elderly friends’ flat for drinks.  They buzzed me in and as I entered the living room, there they were, sitting in their chairs, wine glasses in hand, staring fixedly at the clock.  A bottle of wine was on the coffee table.

Their eyes lit up gratefully when they saw me.  ‘Ah,’ said my hostess.  ‘Thank goodness you’re here. We’re waiting for the hand to go up to six, but now you’ve come we can bring it forward.’  Within seconds, three glasses of wine were full.

I know just how they feel.  It’s hard – well all but impossible - for me too to wait until six in the evening to have my first glass of wine.  From about four in the afternoon, I am looking forward to it and that half hour from five-thirty to six passes agonizingly slowly. 

Yet if I start drinking too early, I will have had my daily quota before the evening has even begun.  What a dilemma for the elderly drinker!

Just recently, writer Roger Lewis and supermodel Marie Helvin, both of bus-pass age, rhapsodized about how surprisingly wonderful life now was without alcohol.  I’m afraid I cannot share their enthusiasm for the teetotal life.  My daily glass or two of wine is an absolute necessity to make life bearable and I’ve been doing it for so long I can hardly remember a day without it.

Well, actually I can. All too vividly.  And it was ghastly. I was spending Christmas one year at an alcohol-free retreat centre. The food was wonderful but did that matter when it was being washed down with apple juice?  And although the occasion was adults-only, the festivities felt much like a children’s party, innocent, endless and boring. (The only way to endure a children’s party is to lay on plenty of wine for the adults.)  I somehow got through Christmas Eve without wine but had no idea how I would last out on Christmas Day.

The truth is, I didn’t. Desperate for a glass, I persuaded a non-drinking friend to drive me to the nearest pub, where I had the biggest glass of wine the place could offer.  And another.  It was wonderful; the only happy memory I have of that occasion.

As an over-65 who drinks every single day, it seems I am now a Statistic. According to a BBC Panorama programme in September, those aged 65 and over are more likely to drink every day, drink at home and drink alone than any other age group.

Yes, that’s me, guilty on all three counts. I also, to my eternal shame, contribute to the statistics which say we oldies have more alcohol-related admissions to hospital than any other age group. One night I was coming home from a boozy party and I vaguely remember getting off the tube and turning into my street.  From then everything went blank until several hours later I woke up in Charing Cross Hospital A&E along with all the other drunks of the night. There I was, a modern day incarnation of Edna, the Inebriate Woman.  Old, drunk and disorderly.

So how did I get to A&E? Some kind soul had spotted this smartly dressed woman lying dead drunk in the gutter and had called for an ambulance.  I never discovered who it was, but saw it as a sign that God wanted me to carry on drinking – sensibly, of course, from now on.

In order to cope with my drinking habits, I have evolved some complicated rituals and an enviable ability to pull the wool over my own eyes. 

Officially, I drink half a bottle of white wine a day but I know that on many days (most days) I exceed that.  When I notice the contents of the bottle going down so fast – surely bottles are getting smaller these days– I sigh and return it to the fridge. After a few minutes I take the bottle back out and pour tiny tiny amounts in my glass until I notice there is maybe half an inch left in the bottle. Only then do I put it away for good, telling myself that I have only drunk half a bottle. OK, three quarters.  But no, definitely not, the Whole Bottle.

Buying wine too, has its own self-deluding elements.  It makes sense to buy half a dozen or dozen bottles at the wine warehouse and load up the case in the car. Theoretically, six bottles, if drunk alone, should last me 12 days.  However, they have usually gone after eight days, so in order to maintain the fiction that I only drink half a bottle a day, I buy my wine in ones and twos until a fortnight is up, when I can return to the warehouse for another six bottles.

Yet at the same time my biggest fear is running out. It’s all part of the skewed logic that characterizes the elderly drinker.

Most of my sixty plus friends, too, have built their lives around wine.  One couple always ask me to stay the night when inviting me over to dinner.  That way, we can all get riotously drunk and nobody needs to watch their intake.  They say they don’t want to watch me sitting there abstaining because I have to drive back home, while they knock back glass after glass.  This is actually their policy with all their drinking guests.

And that’s another thing about drinking. We are not just spending the kids’ inheritance on alcohol, but on taxis as well.  Because we daren’t ever risk drinking and driving, we take taxis everywhere when drinking is involved. Not drinking, needless to say, is never an option.

Other friends giving dinner parties have dispensed altogether with the niceties of pouring. One couple I know have got so used to having a bottle of wine each every night that they hand their guests their own bottle as well.  When I first witnessed this I was shocked; now I can see the point.

One 80 something friend holds frequent events to raise funds for the many animal charities she supports. She knows and I know and everybody else there knows that although she raises significant sums, we’re all there really for the wine.  Without the wine, would we go? Probably not.

Then I have drinker friends on permanent medication.  Very many older people I know are on warfarin, the anti-coagulant drug also known as rat poison. Expert opinion states that the only way to drink safely on warfarin is to be consistent, so they interpret this as meaning that they absolutely must have three glasses of wine every single day. ‘Otherwise I’ll get a bad reaction from the warfarin’ they maintain.

One friend recently became very ill and had to take strong painkillers, which made him feel sick. But because he was on warfarin, he still forced down his three glasses of red wine every night. ‘I’m worried about what will happen otherwise,’ he said. ‘If I don’t have any wine tonight, and then have a lot tomorrow, it will put my warfarin readings out.’

Talking of illness, you might wonder how my liver is faring after so many years of daily drinking. The answer is, absolutely fine, thanks very much. A few years ago I had to have blood tests and an ECG before a surgical operation. I was worried because I had been drinking at a party the night before, but all the alcohol in my bloodstream seemed to have disappeared by the morning. In fact, I was told I had the innards of a woman of 30.

Yet another sign that God wants me to carry on drinking.  I’m afraid I have persuaded myself that the widely recommended ‘units’ – 14 a week for women and 21 for men – are so much unscientific nonsense.

Why do I do it?  Whatever my mood, it seems that wine can improve it.  It takes off that top level of consciousness and allows me to enjoy and experience events in a mellow relaxed state. It puts everything at one remove, gives that slightly spaced-out feeling which means I can smile at misfortune. It makes watching the News bearable.  When slightly intoxicated, I don’t care about anything; at least not to the extent of when I’m stone cold sober.  Wine makes boring company tolerable and interesting company even more exciting.

A date with a brand- new person, for instance, would be impossible without it.  Dating sites often advise you to meet initially ‘for coffee’ – but what’s the point?  I could never have a relationship with a teetotaller anyway so why bother? Half the pleasure of going on a new date is meeting in a new place for drinks, and if I’m honest, I am often looking forward more to the drink than to the date.

So are there any downsides? Yes – that wonderful hit of the first glass at six, surpassing every other sensation, means I can’t drink at lunchtime.  Nor can I ever enjoy afternoon tea, which for the now abstinent Roger Lewis has become a new pleasure.  Even my eating revolves around drinking.

Although we are advised never to drink on an empty stomach, that is when wine is at its most enjoyable.  If I have just a sandwich for lunch, at, say 12.30, this means that by six the wine can course through every vein, uninterrupted by any food.  At 95, Dame Vera Lynn says that she too always has a glass of wine at six, with a packet of crisps.  I expect that like me, she is looking forward to it for most of the afternoon.

We oldies have it’s true, become incorrigible tipplers.  I never had this rigid unbreakable drinking routine when I was younger; I could take it or leave it. But it’s understandable. We have so few pleasures left in life.  And at least we drink in our own homes. We rarely spill out of nightclubs at three in the morning.  By contrast, because we have to start drinking so early in the evening, we are usually tucked up in bed by ten, doing no harm to anybody.

My son Tom who sometimes comes to stay, says he cannot start drinking as early as six, because then he will get too drunk as the evening wears on.  His start point is eight o’clock, about the time I’m thinking of turning in.  I wish that, like him, I could hold out but I can’t, I just can’t.  Even when a friend is calling for me to go out to a restaurant at eight, I am still on my first glass of wine at six.

So after downing veritable rivers of wine in my time, am I sniffing delicate bouquets and appreciating rare vintages? I am not. Like Iris Murdoch before me, I stick to cheap wine on the understanding that at least I will always be able to afford it, whereas fine wines might compromise my old age pension.  And if I get a taste for the fine stuff, I may not want to go back to cheap plonk.

Drinking as I do, there is the additional problem of disposing of the empties. I live in a house of four flats and sadly, seem to be the only drinker in the building. I am always horrified when I take my empties to our recycle bin, only to find that the empties already there are also all mine.  Do the other residents realise they have an old soak in their midst?

At such times, I say to myself: I must stop drinking, or drinking so much or so regularly.  It’s a resolve that always lasts   -  until six o’clock in the evening.


Daily Mail - November 2012