Does Retirement Contribute to Senior Substance Abuse?

By Paul Gaita 10/10/14

An alarming report states that substance abuse among senior citizens has grown significantly over the last decade.

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Alcohol and drug abuse rates among adults aged 65 years or older have more than doubled in the last decade, and are expected to reach even higher numbers in the years to come.

This statistic is part of a growing number of reports on this alarming trend, which affects about 17% of the 35 million seniors in the United States. While alcohol is the substance most frequently abused by this demographic, a 2013 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that illicit drug use among adults between the ages of 50 and 64 rose from 2.7% in 2002 to 6% in 2013.

While the changes wrought upon the body by aging have a significant impact on the physical impact of alcohol and drugs on seniors, other studies have shown that retirement may have the most far-ranging effect on incipient or latent substance abuse. More specifically, it is “the conditions leading to retirement, and the economic and social nature of the retirement itself,” that may lead many seniors into greater drug and alcohol use, as Peter A. Bamberger and Samuel B. Bacharach found in studies conducted for their book Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic.

“In retirement, there can be depression, divorce, death of a spouse, moving from a big residence into a small residence,” said substance abuse counselor Steven Wollman. Seniors may turn to substance abuse as a means of curbing feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or plain boredom.

“For anyone who’s an addict, [that’s] the No. 1 trigger.” The medical community’s inability or lack of time to properly diagnose chemical dependency may also be a contributing factor, as well as the similarity between many normal signs of aging, like memory loss or confusion, and symptoms of substance impairment.

As the SAMHSA report “Substance Abuse Among Older Adults” noted, a collaborative effort between clinicians, family members, and social service providers to “be on the lookout for signs of problems” might represent the first line of defense against this growing problem.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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