Retirement, Addiction, and Alcoholism: The Hidden Connection

When they begin to reach middle age, most people start looking forward to their retirement years as a time when they will finally be able to relax and leave the stresses of their jobs behind them. But unfortunately, when the time actually comes to exit the workforce, many find that things turn out quite a bit differently than they expected.

Health problems tend to increase for almost all of us as we age, and the death of a cherished partner is another situation many are forced to deal with when they enter their post-retirement years. And even though most believe that they will feel relief when they are no longer required to punch the proverbial time clock five days a week, giving up a job that a person has performed for decades can leave many feeling as if their existence has suddenly lost its meaning and purpose.

When faced with trying circumstances such as these, it is hardly surprising that many elderly people come to rely on drugs and alcohol to help them numb their feelings of aimlessness, loneliness, and depression. Older people do not normally develop addictions to illegal street drugs (easy access to prescription medications makes them a far more convenient option), but overall alcohol and drug abuse is rampant in the over-65 age group, and there are millions of men and women in the United States alone struggling with the debilitating effects of chemical dependency.

The Dynamics of Senior Addiction

For many seniors, life can be a daily struggle against pain, loneliness, and boredom. The perpetual quiet and stillness that replaces the fury of activity associated with work and raising a family can become all but unbearable for many, and it is within this context that alcohol and prescription drug use can quickly run out of control. These chemicals allow older people struggling with the difficulties of aging to escape from their problems for awhile, and when there is no one around to monitor their behavior it can become extremely easy for this type of convenient escapism to degenerate into a full-blown addiction.

Interestingly, only about one-third of all elderly alcoholics actually develop an addiction for the first time during their golden years. The rest are people who have battled alcoholism throughout their lives; so in this case, the unpleasant realities of aging cannot really be blamed for the onset of the chemical dependency, although they can certainly make the problem worse. Older prescription drug addicts, on the other hand, are far more likely to develop their dependency for the first time during their post-retirement years, when powerful medicines are frequently prescribed for chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and so on. The free availability of these drugs combined with the relief they bring from intense physical pain can be enough to cause those taking them to slip into a pattern of substance abuse with surprising ease. There is no question, however, that the emotional pain and depression that too often accompany old age also play a role in prescription drug abuse, since anything that can make a person feel better for even a little while is often welcomed and embraced.

While the desire to escape from misery is certainly the driving force behind most cases of late onset alcoholism and drug addiction, in some instances the extensive opportunities for socializing that are often associated with retirement community-style living can also lead to problems. At times, the atmosphere in such places can be like a non-stop vacation or party, and many older people who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands are not prepared to handle the responsibility of having so much freedom.

Treating Senior Addiction

One of the reasons why addiction and alcoholism can be considered a hidden problem in the elderly is because medical professionals so often fail to recognize the signs. Tremors, memory problems, confusion, dizziness, an unsteady gate, and all the other symptoms of substance abuse are frequently misdiagnosed by doctors who think they are actually seeing indicators of dementia or some other common disease of aging. Family members who are not around an elderly parent, grandparent, or other relative as often may also make the same mistake, and as a result older people with substance abuse issues often do not receive the type of assistance and advice they truly need.

While the medical profession is still somewhat naïve about the prevalence of addiction and alcoholism in the elderly, the substance abuse treatment community has become much more aware of the existence of this problem. Scores of treatment programs designed to help older people in particular have now been developed, and the rates of recovery for elderly addicts and alcoholics have been showing improvement in response to the creation of these customized rehabilitation regimes.

The Value of Being There

For the family and friends of those who are approaching retirement, it should be recognized that this kind of a major life change can cause serious adjustment problems for even the most grounded individual. Other sudden changes such as the death of a spouse or the onset of a serious illness can complicate things even further, and leave a retired person vulnerable to the lure of chemical diversions. In the case of a newly-retired person who has struggled with addiction or alcoholism in the past, even if they have been on the wagon for several years the possibility of relapse could be quite strong, so careful monitoring of someone in this situation is a necessity. Even if a retired senior does not have a previous history of substance abuse, however, their alcohol and prescription drug consumption should still be watched carefully, since more than 30% of elderly addicts do not have a pattern of past behavior that would indicate they are vulnerable to developing a chemical addiction.

The loved ones of retirees struggling with the issues of aging and sudden inactivity can help protect them from the seductive lure of alcohol and drugs, but good intentions are not enough. Time, effort, and close attention are also required, to make sure that elderly family members are not being inadvertently abandoned during their hour of need.