We tend to think of problem drinking as a problem for the young, or the middle aged and depressed, but alcohol abuse doesn’t believe in age discrimination. Neither does drug abuse. Worrying statistics show that older Americans are drinking and abusing illicit drugs at record rates. Is it loneliness? A feeling of purposelessness after retirement? The loss of friends or a spouse? Turns out, it’s all pretty complicated, but if you notice grandma or grandpa going through bottles of tequila or hoarding prescription pills, you might need to intervene.
Retired Americans and Substance Abuse
Statistics show very clearly that there is an issue with older Americans and substance abuse. Even when you consider the fact that the overall number of retirees is growing thanks to the size of the Baby Boomer generation, there are a lot of seniors hitting the bottle. About three million meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and experts expect that number to double by 2020.
As for drug abuse, the number of adults over the age of 50 abusing illicit substances doubled from 2002 to 2013. A common factor among older adults struggling with substance abuse is being retired. It makes sense that such a big life transition could lead many adults to seek comfort in drugs and alcohol, but researchers have found that the numbers can’t be explained so simply.
It’s not Just Retirement
Recent research from faculty at Tel Aviv University and Cornell University, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has uncovered some interesting and more complex explanations for the increasing number of older Americans turning to drugs and alcohol. The researchers used a phone-based survey and collected answers from 1,200 adults between the ages of 52 and 75.
The data definitely show that retirement is part of the problem. The transition from working for thirty or more years and being useful and needed, to not working can be difficult. Not all workers have prepared adequately for this transition and face feelings of having no purpose, of not being needed, and of not having anything useful to do. Psychologically, the transition is tough.
What the researchers found among all the survey responses was that the psychological transition from work to no work was not the simple answer to the problem of elder substance abuse. Whether a retiree would become a substance abuser had more to do with circumstances and attitudes surrounding retirement than the lack of work itself. For instance, those that had not prepared financially were more likely to take to drinking or drug abuse. Another issue was marital discord. Retirement of one spouse can put a strain on the relationship. Deaths of close friends and spouses also contributed to substance abuse.
The reasons for and the conditions of retirement were also important in determining how well individuals coped and whether they turned to substance abuse. The group that had the highest rates of substance abuse included those seniors that had retired earlier than they wanted to out of fear that the companies for which they worked were going to fail. These people enjoyed their jobs and were not ready to stop working yet.
The Good News
All this sounds terribly depressing and sad, but there is good news. Even small interventions can make a difference. In fact, even the awareness that substance abuse is an issue for older Americans can lead to significant positive changes. This means you may need to have a talk with that senior you care about. It may be awkward, but if you want grandma to be happy and healthy, sit her down and have a chat about her lifestyle choices. Your intervention could make all the difference.