Seniors Using and Abusing Substances: A Perfect Storm

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

While there has been necessary focus on the increasing rates of illicit drugs and alcohol by younger people, flying under the radar is use by seniors.

Illicit drugs include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, and prescription drugs (pain relievers, stimulants, tranquilizers, and sedatives) used not as medically prescribed.

A Look at the Numbers

According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among adults ages 50 to 64, the overall rate of illicit drug use increased from 2.7% in 2002 to 6.0% in 2013.

More specifically:

  • The rate of people ages 50-54 increased from 3.4% in 2002 to 7.9%.
  • Those ages 55-59 saw an increase from 1.9% to 5.7%.
  • People ages 60-64 saw an increase from 1.1% to 3.9% in 2013.

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are quickly filling the ranks of seniors. By 2030, there will be approximately 72 million people over the age of 65. Many Baby Boomers bring more liberal attitudes toward drug use, especially marijuana, which is the most commonly used illicit drug.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Now add alcohol by stirring or shaking. Many seniors over the age of 65 continue to drink alcohol beyond the limit of seven per week and no more than three per day as recommended by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. By itself, alcohol can be a significant problem for seniors as their metabolism slows; bodies simply become less capable of processing alcohol. Older people tend to have more medical conditions treated with multiple prescriptions, which, when combined with alcohol, can complicate existing medical conditions and cause even more, often resulting in additional prescription drugs that continue a vicious cycle.

For many men who saw their primary role to be “The Provider,” it can be a crushing blow to recognize that they cannot afford to retire.-Peg O’ConnorPeople of all ages drink or use drugs for many reasons. For some, it is a matter of pleasure. For others, it is a reward for having worked hard or having made sacrifices. Some people start drinking because they are lonely, depressed, bored, or isolated; this gives them something to do. Many others drink or use because they are stressed – and there are plenty of reasons for seniors to be stressed.

Financial insecurity is a major source of stress. Even if a person has done everything “right” in planning for retirement, he or she may lose an important source of self-identity and a sense of making a contribution. Even with good financial planning, there are no guarantees that one will have enough resources. For many men who saw their primary role to be “The Provider,” it can be a crushing blow to recognize that they cannot afford to retire. There may also be resentment that Social Security, savings, and pension plans etc are not sufficient. Hard work does not guarantee rest and relaxation.

Financial insecurity has deep racial and gender dimensions, which is crucial to understanding why senior women may be even more vulnerable to using and misusing alcohol and drugs. In general, women have greater financial insecurity as a consequence of their working histories and the wage gap between men and women. The wage gap creates financial insecurity in the present that is compounded in the future.  In 2014:

  • The wage gap for women of all ethnicities is 78% of the wages earned by white men.
  • For Hispanic or Latino women, the gap is 54% while it is 64% for African-American women.
  • Native American women or Native Alaskan women earn 59% and Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian 62% of white men.
  • Asian women fare the best at earning 90% of what white men earn.

The wage gap exists between men and women within each particular race/ethnicity category too. Lower wages produce lower contributions to Social Security, pension plans, and other retirement options, which means a much smaller retirement income.

Demographic Details

Disparity in the paid work force amplifies and is amplified by disparity in home/domestic labor, and this may be a source of great stress in women of all ages but especially senior women.

For decades, sociologists have been tracking the differences in men’s and women’s caring work in the home and family. Women often interrupt their paid working life to care for children. They may work lower paying jobs with more flexibility so that they can care for their children. Those who remain working full time still do twice as much childcare then men and more of the house work. Divorced parents and single parents face an even greater set of challenges with care labor.

With increased life expectancy, more seniors are caring for their elderly parents. Like childcare, the burden of this care falls disproportionally on women. Women will take more time off from work to care for elders, work at lower paying jobs for flexibility, and offer financial support to elderly family members. Many more elders are caring for or providing support in various forms to their grandchildren and their adult children as well, which means more stress for women as primary caregivers. Should one’s spouse become ill in the process, one person may find herself responsible for care on multiple fronts while not suitably caring for herself.

Some men will find themselves in the role of primary caregiver when a spouse falls ill, and this can be profoundly frightening because they find themselves in completely unchartered waters. Fear can be another reason why people start or continue to use alcohol and drugs. How will we pay medical bills? Who will take care of our children who require specialized care after we’re gone? Who will take care of me if I have no spouse or children? Loss is another reason for use. As people begin to lose their spouses, family members, and friends, we not only lose our social lives, we lose parts of ourselves.

For all of these reasons and more, seniors begin or continue to use alcohol and drugs. That extra glass of wine each night or the extra half pill of an anti-anxiety medication or a sleep aid is just a little something extra to get through the day or something deserved. But the effects of these little extras can quickly add up, especially for women whose use, for a variety of reasons, escalates more quickly toward addiction.

With increased life expectancy, more seniors are caring for their elderly parents. Like childcare, the burden of this care falls disproportionally on women.-Peg O’Connor

A Problem We Can’t Ignore

This growing problem of senior substance abuse requires a concerted and integrated approach. Family members and friends need to be more alert to the possibility that loss of balance, falls, memory issues, slurred speech may not be merely signs of aging but effects of alcohol and drugs. Raising this concern may be very awkward and uncomfortable for everyone, but it needs to happen.

Physicians need to utilize effective screening tools with their patients and not too quickly ascribe signs and symptoms to aging. Pharmacists need to educate consumers about the side effects of prescription drugs and the dangers of mixing with alcohol.

The larger issue of how to keep seniors connected and engaged with not just their peers, but people of different generations is crucial and requires enormous creativity.

Image Courtesy of iStock

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