Seniors: the new Face Of Addiction

Jerry. He's 75. He is a happy retired grandfather. He is still married to his wife after fifty 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.

It took an entire storm of crisis -- his involuntary resignation from his job and the loss of his mother. His wife had surgery. This sent him spiraling down into vodka, vodka with lunch, vodka throughout the afternoon, then sleep.

"My vodka was my higher power. 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.

By 2020, the number of seniors suffering from substance abuse (including drug or alcohol addiction) is projected to grow to 5.7million. It's a silent epidemic that is often not recognized by seniors and their families.

For Treatment

Jerry is now six years sober and ponders why his alcoholism didn't raise any alarms. He never inquired of his doctor, whom he had known for many years.

Only when he started putting aside a liter of vodka every day and his kids refused to let him see his grandchildren that he realized he needed assistance. His weight had dropped to 50 pounds, and he was struggling with his 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 a major change in my life that happened within a short time span. "That definitely drove me to the top," he said. He checked into Caron Treatment Centers.

Joseph Garbely MD is the medical director at Caron's Pennsylvania facility. He says that because of this problem, its Pennsylvania facility has established a senior program. There are currently 10 available beds, with 14 additional being planned for expansion. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration conducted a survey in 2013 and found at least 17,000 facilities that offer senior-specific treatment. This compares to the total of approximately 18,000 facilities.

There are many stages of life issues. A physical limitation can cause loss of independence. It can also lead to the loss of close friends and family members. Garbely states that people can feel isolated when they retire and are not working.

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. Recent research found that more seniors are receiving treatment for opioid addiction in addition to painkillers. In New York City, the 50-59 age range was the most prevalent in programs offering opioid treatment. While illegal drug abuse may be less prevalent among older adults, it is not impossible to do so. Garbely knew of one individual who took up crack cocaine use after his retirement.

A recent nationwide survey of people with elderly parents commissioned by Caron revealed that most expect the family doctor to be asking about their parent's medication and alcohol use. Garbely states that doctor visits are now only minutes, compared to the time it used to take to get to know the patients and learn more.

The survey also showed that half of the grown children didn't think substance abuse was a problem among the elderly, even while 37% reported seeing their parent practice risky habits, including having three drinks or more in one sitting, or drinking and driving.

"There aren't many seniors who look at them and ask what's going on. Garbely suggests that they could be engaging in dangerous behavior through substance abuse.

Recovering from a Broken Heart

Wayne says that AA meetings held during the day are more likely to have older people attend. Wayne also said that he did not want his last name given AA's anonymity policies.

Our meetings should be held during the day, not in the evening. Wayne, 74-year-old from Arizona is an organizer of Seniors in Sobriety. They provide senior-friendly meeting and event opportunities.

His drinking started well before retirement, and he's been in AA for 30 years. But many of the people who attend the meetings have developed drinking problems more recently. Seniors in Sobriety started 12 years ago and has grown to many senior-specific AA clubs in numerous states.

There's more awareness of it. People used to say, 'Grandad drinks too much, but he's too old to do anything about it, so let him have his booze,'" Wayne says. This was not uncommon, and people realize now that programs are available to everyone.

For Jerry, the meetings have been crucial not only to stay away from alcohol, but for the social interaction. An alumni group at the center is where he participates. When he is on vacation with his wife, AA meetings are available along the way.

He isn't happy because he has sobriety. Recently, he broke his foot. However, he is more optimistic than in his vodka days. Seniors are often unable to go out to meet with others or lack strong family support.