Seniors The New Face of Addiction

Seniors: The New Face of Addiction By R. Scott Rappold
WebMD Health News Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

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.

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