Drug and Alcohol Use Disorders and Baby Boomers
Aunt Sue might like a glass of wine with dinner and Uncle Tom might drink a beer every night, and that is their normal routine. That doesn’t make them addicts or imply that they are abusing drugs.
In fact, it is likely the same behavior that many of their peers have. It might be the same behavior that you have. However, for many Baby Boomers, drug and alcohol abuse disorders are a part of their life, and a lot of these disorders go unrecognized or discussed because we respect older people and don’t question them. It’s time to pay attention and ask questions.
American society tends to promote drug and alcohol interventions for young people and that’s a good thing, but it fails to serve the growing population of older adults with drug and alcohol problems. They are being ignored and they are dying because of it. For their safety and your continued relationship with the older people you love, you need to get them help.
If an older adult in your life is showing signs of a drug or alcohol abuse problem and you want to know what you can do, research is a great place to start. For connections to resources, answers to questions, and treatment recommendations, contact SubstanceAbuse.org at 800-487-1890 (Who Answers?) and speak with an expert.
Why Baby Boomers?
It’s not surprising that so many older adults develop drinking problems or drug use problems. For one thing, Baby Boomers are part of a generation that has traditionally had very relaxed attitudes about drug use. The swinging sixties are known for their open sexuality and drug use and Baby Boomers were young people during that time. Drug use doesn’t faze them.
In addition, older people tend to develop drug and alcohol problems because of the life changes that accompany growing older. For example, pain medication is more likely to be prescribed to older adults, and they may grow to rely on it. Others may develop an alcohol problem because their drinks now pack more of a punch now that the user is older and that can snowball. Stress is another problem. Failing health, the death of loved ones, and changes in living situation are common as people grow older and these stressors can cause loneliness, anxiety, boredom, and apathy. These are all emotions people will attempt to escape with substance use.
What Are the Results of this Substance Abuse?
In a December 2015 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers identified a strange trend of increased mortality (from all causes) white non-Hispanic, middle-aged (ages 45-55) Americans between 1999 and 2013. The cause? Substance abuse and emotional distress.
You might wonder how it can be that people living in a time of such impressive medical advances could have their chance of death increase and you would be right to questions it. In fact, in the 15 years this study took place, most other age groups and ethnicities (in addition to white Europeans) saw declines in mortality.
According to Collaborative Research on Addiction at NIH, “The mortality increases paralleled increased self-reports of poor health, pain, psychological distress, and difficulties with activities of daily living (sitting, walking, shopping, socializing with friends) in this population—all of which may be linked to substance abuse.” This also mirrored a rise the use of prescription opioids, which are prescribed to deal with many of the symptoms of aging. However, opioid overdoses are on the rise.
What Can Be Done?
On a medical level, there needs to be more drug and alcohol screening and education at the primary care level. Doctors should be more cautious about handing out prescriptions. But, they also are in the wonderful position of being able to connect with patients and monitor their substance use. Professionals should also offer education.
But, doctors aren’t the only people who can help. Because drug and alcohol abuse in older adults is tied to emotional distress, you can keep an eye on the adults in your life and help them adjust to difficult changes. Don’t be afraid to have a hard conversation about their drug and alcohol use. You could save their life.
For more information about how to connect to older adults in your life and talk about their drug and alcohol use, contact our helpline at 800-487-1890 (Who Answers?) .