An Introduction to Seniors and Alcohol Issues

Life experiences and social norms of the time often affect how people characterize alcohol problems.(1)  

A few years ago in a research study, we asked approximately 100 seniors in British Columbia from all walks of life about the social norms towards alcohol when they were younger ("What was it like when you were growing  up?"). 

We took their comments. We also examined newspaper and historians' accounts for the time. Together, they provide an interesting glimpse into people's attitudes and assumptions around alcohol and drinking in Canada from the 1930s to the 1970s.   The discussion is largely about British Columbia, but the issues were common throughout Canada.

Today's seniors can have deeply ingrained attitudes about drinking, and stereotypes about people who have alcohol problems. It is fairly common to hear a senior say: "I can't possibly have a problem, I'm not a bum", or  "How could my best friend have a problem like that?"

It is important to understand why many older adults may focus on alcohol abuse or alcohol misuse primarily as a moral issue or see handling it as a matter of willpower. It is important to understand why many seniors who are experiencing a problem with alcohol may be reluctant to seek help. 


Historical Look at Alcohol Use in Canada

Very few of Canada's seniors living grew up during Prohibition. Prohibition was in place in parts of Canada from 1901 to 1920s. In some parts of Canada, Prohibition only lasted for only four years. Only seniors who are now in their 90s would have experienced Prohibition first hand as adults.

On the other hand, family attitudes and beliefs carry a lot of weight in people's lives as they grew up. Seniors describe some of their parents' attitudes around drinking:


"I remember when I was 45 years old, bringing a case of beer into the house. My mother (who at the time was in her late 60s) was appalled. She never referred to it as alcohol or beer, only as 'that stuff'. I had to promise that I would only bring 'that stuff' into the house in a brown paper bag, 'otherwise, what would the neighbours think'." (Man in his mid 70s)




Prohibition was enacted across Canada from 1915-17 under the War Measures Act. The purpose of  the restriction on alcohol was to save grain and fruits to provide food for the population during WWI. (2)

Prohibition extended longer in the United States than in Canada, and this led to some "reluctant immigrants".  In the seniors' focus groups, one of the seniors reminisced that occasionally, an American physician would be charged with bootlegging. To save face and his family name, he would hop over the border, and begin practising in Canada.

The Prohibition legislation in Canada varied from province to province. But, in general, legal drinking establishments were closed. The public sale of alcohol was forbidden, as was possession and public consumption of alcohol. Alcohol consumption was permitted in private dwellings. As a result, drinking had to occur behind closed doors, and often in secret.

Alcohol could be sold to others outside the province. It could also be purchased from government dispensaries for industrial, scientific, mechanical, artistic, sacramental and medicinal uses. 

Drinking alcohol did not stop during Prohibition. It just went underground. One way to legally drink was to be "ill". Doctors could give prescriptions to be filled at drugstores:

  "Scandalous abuse of this system resulted, with veritable epidemics and long line ups occurring during the Christmas holiday season". (3)  

For example, by the spring of 1920, 315,000 'prescriptions' for 'medicinal purposes" had been written by doctors in Ontario. They blamed the large volume on the influenza epidemic.(4) In 1923-24, there were 810,000 prescriptions issued in the province. (5)

Today, some seniors still drink for "medicinal purposes" and self-medicate for pain, sleeping difficulties, and other chronic problems using alcohol.

After Prohibition

Once Prohibition laws were repealed in Canada, liquor sales and distribution were strictly controlled throughout most of the country. In many parts of Canada, citizens had the right (local option) to vote out public drinking establishments. This led to certain provinces, counties or municipalities being "dry". Prince Edward Island, for example, did not become "wet" until 1948. Today, there are still a few  dry communities under local option in parts of Canada. (6)

Seniors in the focus groups recalled very heavy drinking occurring in ostensibly dry counties in Manitoba and Ontario. In British Columbia, Victoria (the provincial capital) was "dry" for an extended period of time. However, the communities of Esquimalt (with the Navy and shipping nearby) and Royal Oak, right next door were "wet".

From immediately after Prohibition up to the mid 1950s, there were no "cocktail bars" or lounges in British Columbia. There were only beer parlours. 

People could drink at home, in private establishments such as the Legion (for veterans), labour clubs, or private clubs (for the wealthy). Drinking at this time had class distinctions. It was more common among the working class, or the wealthy, but not the middle class.

From 1921 onwards, the provincial government operated liquor stores. The law permitted drinking in hotel rooms and private homes, but not public places. Liquor store windows were either painted or heavily curtained to shield the liquor from the eyes of children.(7)

If you wanted to purchase alcohol, you were required to buy an annual permit costing $5. A one time permit cost 50 cents. There were 17 liquor outlets  in British Columbia on opening day in 1921, and 51 by the end of the first year.

The Depression Years

The Depression of the 1930s the expansion of liquor stores slowed down in British Columbia. There was also a reduction in alcohol consumption in some places, but not all. People who were well off still had alcohol available in their homes.

Seniors recalled fathers who were having trouble finding work during the Depression. Some would binge drink. Once the man found some work, he would "celebrate" the fact and the money often did not find its way home.

The Depression years also saw the beginnings of Alcohol Anonymous ("AA"). The organization had its beginnings in 1935 in Akron, Ohio. It was already well established in British Columbia by the mid 1940s and in most communities was the only form of assistance available if a person was  experiencing a drinking problem.

The AA approach became popular for many decades. It was heavily promoted in advice columns such as "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers". Many seniors are very familiar with AA adages and the AA perspective. In the AA philosophy, alcohol dependence is considered a "disease" that the person has no control over drinking, and abstinence is the only "cure" for the "disease". AA had a very strong religious (Christian) component to it; that spiritualism component continues to the present.

World War II

The period around World War II was represented by two different trends. There was more money available. However, there were also liquor shortages and rationing. In March 1942, British Columbia liquor stores, for example, began receiving about 40% less stock than the year before. This led to beer parlours, private clubs, and liquor stores closing for several days at a time until the next shipment came in.

Seniors noted that bars were opened and closed several times a day. This in turn led to binge drinking ("Drink it while it's still there and you still can"). Some seniors noted:

  "You saw a lot of drunkenness at that time."  

When alcohol was available, long line ups developed at the liquor stores.(8) Rationing of alcohol continued for several years after World War II.

Some people had alternate sources  to the store-bought  alcohol. Older men remember drinking home brews. Some older women recall making alcohol on the farms to be sold at rural dances. In North Vancouver, British Columbia people were still being criminally charged for making moonshine well into the 1960s.(9)

During the focus groups, seniors suggested that many of the rules in place across Canada during that period, in effect, promoted heavy drinking:

  "ln those days, if you went to a bar, the only thing you could do was drink. There was no food, no pool or billiards. You were not even permitted to move from one table to another to socialize." (Man aged 75)  

Post War

Many seniors remember the segregated bars that existed across Canada. There was an entrance for "Men Only" and a separate one for 'Ladies and Escorts". Few "nice ladies" went to bars; fewer stilI drank beer. Some women did drink at home, often alone, and in secrecy.

One senior noted that women were not permitted in many Legions until after WWII. Indeed, this senior may have been the first woman in the region to do so. Upon learning of the "no women" rule, a local Member of Parliament invited her to accompany him in. Because of his social and political status, no one dared questioned her being there.

Treatment for Alcohol Problems in the 1930s to 1960s

From the 1930s to the 1960s, there were few treatments available for people experiencing problems with alcohol. Instead, people with an alcohol problem were jailed, typically for loitering, fighting, or being drunk and disorderly. (10) Police court had a regular "drunk parade".

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was ongoing pressure in the province to establish better facilities. For the upper and middle class, that meant clinics and sanatoria.

For the poor, it meant alcoholic "farms" (rehabilitation centres located in the country). It was believed that if people with alcohol problems could be moved from the negative environment in which they were living to a more positive one where there was "good hard work" clearing land and farming, that they would once again become responsible citizens. One of the first British Columbia urban centres or 'homes" for people with alcohol problems was established by the Salvation Army in 1953. (11)

Prior to the establishment of special facilities for people with alcohol problems, mental institutions (e.g., Essondale), took many of the people with alcohol problems. People were admitted not for the alcohol problem, but for a "nervous breakdown".

By 1951, the mental institutions were becoming increasingly crowded (12). Psychiatrists began to stress that people with alcohol problems needed better facilities.(13) However, it took another twelve years before that happened, with the establishment of the treatment facility called Miracle Valley (14).

During this period, the research, psychiatric and medical fields were trying to determine the cause of alcohol problems in order to offer help. In the mid 1960s, one of  the common theories was that alcohol problems resulted from the person having a "personality defect' or "a lack of personality".(15)

During this period,  tranquillizers were discovered and were becoming a common treatment. In some cases, the person then became addicted to alcohol and the prescribed drugs. Electroshock therapy was another treatment approach for alcohol problems.

It was hard for people with alcohol problems to get help from the health system, and family doctors were not overly enthusiastic about helping people with alcohol problems.(16)

The provincial Hospital Insurance in the early 1950s did not recognize alcoholism as a medical disease. It took until 1957 to finally be covered under the hospital plan. (17) However new programs ran into similar problems with coverage in the mid 1960s. (18)

Treatment approaches have changed significantly over the years, and most for the better. However, when seniors think about the prospect of seeking help for an alcohol problem, these early images may still come to mind.

The Political Environment : Deny, Deny, Deny

British Columbia had a long social and political history of denying that alcohol problems existed in the community. In the early 1950s, a national report from Toronto placed the rate of alcoholism in British Columbia at 2,352/10,000. This was the highest rate in the country and five times the national average.(19) That meant that there were 28,000 people in British Columbia who were experiencing alcohol problems. For well over a decade, British Columbia maintained that dubious distinction.

When the national report came out, the statistics were first thrown into question by the province's Attorney General. Provincial officials later tried to explained away the high rate. It was attributed to "frontier ideas" (20); "retirees from other provinces with too much time on their hands"; and "seasonable employment" (21) Other explanations included:

  "professional men", "black sheep from Quebec and the Maritimes and other Eastern provinces who are disowned by their families and gravitate to B.C." (22)  

A decade later, it was attributed to "chronic rain and too much wealth" (23, 24). No one was willing to admit that British Columbia might have a "home grown" problem.

Throughout this period, British Columbia's political environment was conservative. Politicians were known to publicly sermonize about drinking. (25)

The alcohol problem was commonly viewed as a problem of the "lower classes". So, when the Alcohol Foundation of British Columbia in 1959 publicly noted that "an inordinate number" of its middle class and upper middle cases came from the affluent West Vancouver and North Vancouver area, the Reeve of West Vancouver publicly took exception with the "slur" on his community. (26)

Over the decades, the provincial government considered controlling alcohol problems in several different ways. One was to ban certain people from buying alcohol (interdiction). In 1963, 4500 people were legally forbidden liquor in the province. (27) Compulsory treatment was also considered.

Current addiction and gerontological literature discussing seniors with alcohol problems frequently refers to the fact that seniors tend to treat the issue as a moral one. It is clear that most of their lives, alcohol has been treated as a moral issue by them, their peers, politicians, and by professionals.

Alcohol and Medicine

Through this the first half of this century, alcohol was frequently prescribed by physicians for heart conditions, anxiety, sleeplessness and a variety of the other conditions. It was viewed as a legitimate medicine at the time by both physicians and patients. (28)

Alcohol was often seen as a way of fighting off infection, or at least giving the body a chance to rest. It is important to remember that antibiotics were not tested on humans until 1941. (29)  Antibiotics were not generally available in many regions of Canada until much later. Even when available, they were frequently expensive and often beyond people's means.

Seniors recalled physicians prescribing brandy for teething babies, and a shot of liquor to handle pain. Home medicine included gin and garlic for arthritis. Rum toddies were a frequent home remedy for colds and influenza.

Stout was being prescribed for nursing women until well into the 1970s. Around the same time, some older women remember physicians who would suggest that pregnant women have a drink or smoke in order to relax.

Seniors also recalled doctors who told women that alcohol would "help build their blood" and "everyone needs a little alcohol in their blood".  Some physicians were known to prescribe alcohol for women in hospital as an alternative to sleeping pills.

Employment and Alcohol

"Just Part of the Job": In British Columbia, a sizeable proportion of the single male population were employed in resource industries (lumber, mining, fishing). They worked hard in isolated areas for extended periods of time, then they came into town to "celebrate" (drink away their wages in a short period of time). Heavy drinking was a social norm, particularly among single men and men who were away from their families.

In the late 1950s, the industries were being warned that there was a problem. (30) Seasonal employment led to people working in winter-affected industries putting in "many man-hours of elbow-lifting". This potentially led to serious alcohol use problems. Perhaps as a result of this environment, employee assistance programs dealing with alcohol problems first developed in these resource industries in British Columbia.'

Pioneer and Cariboo Ethic: Northern British Columbia has always had a different attitude towards alcohol consumption than the southern regions of the province.

  "Up here in the early days, people worked hard, played hard and drank hard, Those who couldn't hack it, could simply leave... "(31)



Service providers in the north refer to this as "the Pioneer Ethic" or the "Cariboo Ethic". Similar trends have been noted in other provinces:

  "Not drinking or being able to hold your alcohol was a sign of weakness, that you weren't a real man..."



Many of the people who lived and worked in northern regions in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s are alive today and they are still fiercely independent.

"All in a Day's Work": In many other jobs, drinking was socially expected. Retired members of the Armed Forces and their spouses explain that in order to get ahead in some circles, people were expected to socialize and part of that entailed regular drinking. Alcohol was also readily available to soldiers at very low cost. Perhaps for these reasons, alcoholism is higher among veterans than other segments of the senior population. American studies, for example, have found that 30% of veterans in veterans' housing had significant alcohol problems. (32)

In one focus group, a former paymaster described how alcohol became a significant problem for many Canadian soldiers. In response, the armed forces developed a policy of automatically paying a set amount each month to a soldier's wife from his wages to ensure that there was some money for the family.  While well intentioned, the policy had its shortcomings. Women at that time rarely had a bank account in their own name, so they could easily be forced into giving the allowance back over to their spouse.

Traditions: Navy tradition ensured that each man had his daily allocation of rum, whether or not he was at sea. Sailors could elect to receive grog, four ounces of lime (temperance) or a few cents a day. Several days allotments could be saved up to be consumed all at once.

Other Occupations:
Regular consumption of alcohol was expected in a variety of other occupations too. In the 1940s through to 1970s, the cocktail and cocktail hour was viewed as an important feature of doing business among upper middle classes. In movies, elegance and affluence was portrayed by actors drinking cocktails, usually with a cigarette in hand.

Seniors noted that alcohol was both a social and business lubricant in many businesses, including real estate and sales, even banking. Being "able to socialize" and "getting along well with others" became part of job performance criteria. For some employers, that entailed social drinking.

However, other seniors who worked in similar occupations, had different experiences. It seems that whether or not social drinking in a particular business or profession was expected, depended on one's peers and superiors.

In the early 1960s with rising affluence, alcohol became an increasing part of entertaining for many people. Local newspapers noted that it was "socially risky to invite someone to a suburban home without offering a drink". (33) Liquor advertising of the time usually included symbols of distinction (e.g., expensive cars) alongside the alcohol product.

Alcohol and Sports

Men noted that during the 1960s and 1970s, alcohol and sports  (such as curling,  hockey) often went hand in hand. As one man explained:

  "We lived in Winnipeg where there were several breweries. There was a lot of competition among them for your business. Typically they would sponsor amateur hockey or other sport teams. Often they provided free cases or a keg of beer to the players for after the game."  


The Cultural Differences in Attitudes Towards Alcohol

There were significant cultural differences in attitudes towards alcohol consumption throughout the country. Soldiers coming back from Europe after World War II drew stark comparisons between Canada and England where both family and pets were permitted into bars. Those returning from France and Italy were also amazed by the difference in drinking attitudes between those countries and Canada.

Even at home in Canada, there were strong cultural differences:

  "I remember the Italians the best.... They would order a train carload of grapes at a time to make their own wine. I remember being invited over to an Italian friend's house as a boy. As children we were served wine, just like adults-but the glass was half wine /half water."  
  "My Italian friends actually drank out in the backyard. To me, that was quite shock" (Man, aged 78)  
  "The Portuguese had the best weddings and the best funerals- there was plenty of wine and they lasted for days".  (Man, aged 68)  

Historically, French Canadians also had a distinctive approach to alcohol consumption, compared to what was happening elsewhere in Canada.  For example, when the federal government in 1898 held a national plebiscite on Prohibition, all provinces voted in favour of it,  except for Quebec, where the vote was 4 to 1 against Prohibition. Quebec was also the first province to leave Prohibition.

The differences in attitude continued. In Quebec, beer was also readily available at local grocery stores, being sold in quarts, not pints like other provinces. Some seniors recalled incidents in the 1940s where beer was purchased by children for their parents or other adults.

It is erroneous to think that French drinkers did not sometimes encounter alcohol problems. As one francophone senior pointed out, the French term for it is "sou l'eau" (which loosely translates as "under the water" or perhaps being "under the weather").

Keeping Quiet

Today's seniors were raised in a generation where people did not openly discuss personal problems, whether that was alcohol, children born out of wedlock, or family violence. Even terminal illnesses such as cancer were not openly discussed in many families.

Many seniors grew up in a period in which people were very judgmental of how others should act, think, even dress. There were very clear demarcations between "good people" and "bad people".

In many cases, those attitudes continue. One senior woman pointed out:

  "We seniors are still very judgmental. We talk about each other behind their back and we can be very harsh."  

The social stigma about having an alcohol problem publicly discovered was very strong when today's seniors were growing up, particularly if the person held a high profile in the community. In 1954, a Victoria newspaper reported that some police accepted money from people to "keep the state clean" and to protect their reputation about potential alcohol related charges. (34)

No one wants to be on the receiving end of those  negative comments, and seniors sometimes go to extreme lengths so that others do not find out about their problems.


(1) Many of the personal quotes in this paper are taken from a series of focus groups with seniors throughout B.C. and written in the report "Understanding the Stigma", by C. Spencer, Gerontology Research Centre, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C. This is one of seven studies in the Seniors Independence Research Program "Obstacles to Treatment" research. This research study also incorporates a historical analysis of newspaper reports of social and political responses to alcohol problems in B.C. While some B.C. seniors are "home grown" having lived here all their lives, many came to British Columbia from other parts of Canada, or other countries.
(2) Smart, R.G. & Osbourne, A.C. (1986) Northern Spirits: Drinking in Canada, Then and Now (Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation)  p. 50.
(3 Hallowell, G. "Prohibition" Canadian Encyclopaedia Plus. Copyright ©1995 by McClelland & Stewart Inc.
(4) Walford, M. (Summer, 1996) "History of B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (Part One"): The Struggle with Demon Rum" BCL Guide 60-61.
(5) Smart, supra, n.2.
(6) Hallowell, supra, n. 3.
(7) Walford, M., supra, n. 4.
(8) Walford. M. (Fall, 1996) "History of B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (Part Two"): Rum Running and Rationing" BCL Guide, 60-61.
(9) Ibid.
(10) "Expert documents handling of drunks" Vancouver Sun, May 30, 1958, p.4.
(11) "Alcoholics home opened by 'army'" Colonist, October 2nd, 1953.
(12) "Alcoholics clinic sought to halt Essondale crowding" Times, March 6, 1951, p.20.
(13) "Alcoholics need better facilities- psychiatrist" Colonist December 5, 1963, p. 11.
(14) "The miracle of Miracle Valley" Vancouver Province, May 10, 1963, p.4.
(15) "They never grew up" Colonist, April 5, 1960, p. 15; "Personality lack alcoholism cause" Time, April, 5, 1960, p. 7.
(16) "Difficult to get doctors help to help alcoholics" Times, March 11, 1965, p.2.
(17) "Alcoholics treated under hospital plan" Vancouver Sun, July 6, 1957, p. 6.
(18) "Alcoholic health plan runs into opposition" Vancouver Province, September 21, 1965, p. 30.
(19) " B.C. reputation annoys Attorney- General" Province, February 20, 1954, p.6. ; "Drive planned to cut heavy dinking in B.C." Vancouver News Herald, February 11, 1954, p.1.
(20) "We're heaviest drinkers because 23're pioneers" Vancouver Sun, January 8, 1959, p. 24.
(21) "Frontier blamed for B.C. drinking" Colonist, January 11,1959, p. 30.
(22) "Idleness cause of B.C. drunk toll" Vancouver News Herald, February 13, 1954, p. 1.
(23) "Rain driving us to drink- B.C. leads hit parade" Colonist January 9, 1969, p. 8.
(24) "B.C. alcoholism traced to wealth" Vancouver Sun, January 9, 1969, p. 22.
(25) "Bennett accused of ignorance" Vancouver Sun May 22, 1968, p. 20
(26) "Excess drinking charge 'slur' against West Vancouver" Vancouver Province, September 29, 1959, p. 19.
(27) "4500 forbidden liquor in B.C. " Vancouver Sun, November 4, 1963, p. 1.
(28) Smart, supra. n. 2.
(29) Wacksman, S.A. (1994) "Antibiotics" Microsoft®Encarta. Copyright © 1993 Funk & Wagnalll, Bibilographic Entry B503.
(30) "Industry ignores alcoholic problem" Vancouver Sun, July 17, 1958, p.14.
(31) "Alcoholism costly to B.C. industry" Province, May 10, 1963
(32) Apeldorf, M. & P.J. Hurley (1950) "Application of MMPI Alcoholism scales to older alcoholics and problem drinkers" Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 36, 645-653.
(33) "Drinking up with the Joneses" Vancouver Sun, March 31, 1960, p.1.
(34) "$10 keeps slate clean, saves reputation for drunks" Colonist, February 14, 1954, p. 15.

Page last updated Saturday February 19, 2005

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