Seniors: The New Face of Addiction


Dec. 2, 2015 — Meet Jerry. He’s 75. He’s a happily retired grandfather. He’s still married after 50 years.

And he’s an alcoholic.

After a lifetime of working, a stint in rehab and daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weren’t part of his retirement plans. Sure, he drank, but so do lots of people, and he never found himself drinking to the point of dire consequence.

But it took a perfect storm of crises — involuntary retirement from his job, the death of his mother, his wife’s surgery — to send him into a downward spiral of vodka in the morning, vodka with lunch, vodka all afternoon, sleep, and repeat.

“My higher power was my bottle of vodka. Alcohol controlled my life,” says Jerry, of central Pennsylvania, who asked that his last name not be used.

Addiction experts say stories like Jerry’s are becoming all too common as baby boomers hit retirement age. Research shows that about 40% of people over 65 drink, despite the facts that the body’s ability to break down alcohol decreases with age and that alcohol can have dangerous synergy with many medications commonly taken by seniors.

The number of people over 50 with substance abuse problems — including alcohol and drug abuse — is expected to increase from 2.8 million to 5.7 million by 2020. And it’s in many ways a hidden epidemic, one that often goes unrecognized by doctors and families of seniors.

In Treatment

Today Jerry is 6 years sober, and looking back on his life, he wonders why his drinking never raised any red flags. The doctor he knew for years never asked, and he never volunteered the information.

It wasn’t until he was putting away a liter and a half of vodka a day, when his kids wouldn’t let him be around his grandchildren, when the job he loved no longer wanted him, that he reached the point where he needed help. He had lost 50 pounds and was having trouble walking. But drinking offered him a way to cope, and things didn’t seem so bad after a morning of vodka and watching the squirrels play in his yard.

“It was major life changes in a very short period of time. That definitely pushed me over the edge,” he says. So he checked himself into Caron Treatment Centers.

Joseph Garbely, MD, medical director for Caron’s Pennsylvania facility, says the problem has become so acute that its Pennsylvania facility now has a specialized program for seniors. The 10 beds are always full, and 14 more are planned as part of an upcoming expansion. According to a 2013 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, there were at least 1,700 facilities offering senior-specific substance abuse programs out of about 18,000 total facilities.

“There are stages-of-life issues. There’s often loss of independence because of some physical limitation. There’s also loss of people you’re close to, whether it be family or friends. There’s a sense of isolation that can occur because they’re retired, not going to work,” Garbely says.

And when seniors fight the loneliness with alcohol, they may find that the one or two drinks they were able to have most of their lives suddenly gets them intoxicated. Or the alcohol may affect their medication in dangerous ways.

Garbely says the effects of benzodiazepine meds, such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), can become amplified with alcohol, as can painkillers, with potentially fatal consequences. Taking blood pressure medication, such as beta blockers, along with alcohol can lead to unsteadiness and falls.

And while alcohol is the main issue, other seniors are seeking treatment for addiction to these legal medications. A recent study found more older adults are being treated for addiction to opioid painkillers — by 2012, those ages 50 to 59 made up the largest age group in opioid treatment programs in New York City. Illicit drug abuse is rarer among seniors, though not unheard of. Garbely had one patient who started using crack cocaine after retirement.

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