Troubling statistics clearly demonstrate that older Americans are struggling with drug abuse and alcoholism more than ever before in the U.S. Why this trend is being seen can partly be explained by the aging of the large baby boomer generation, but the issue is more complicated than this simple fact. Why are older adults abusing substances and what can be done to help them? These are important questions that need answers.
The data regarding American seniors and substance abuse come from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The researchers looked at the information for adults over the age of 50 and found that 2.8 million of them were abusing substances. They projected that by 2020, that number will double and that close to 6 million older Americans will have a problem with substance abuse. The rise is expected to be seen across all ethnic groups and for both men and women.
Other statistical studies corroborate these findings and have shown that more and more older adults are seeking treatment for substance use disorders. In 1992, just over 100,000 adults over 50 sought treatment. That number rose to 230,000 by 2008. The main substance of abuse for older Americans is alcohol, but use of illegal drugs is also rising in this age group. Prescription drugs are also a problem for older Americans.
The biggest and most likely reason we are seeing an increase in substance abuse in this age group is simply that the demographic is getting bigger. The baby boomer generation is a big one and now makes up much of the “over 55” group of Americans. A greater elder population means that there are more substance abusers. Another reason may be generational culture. This age group experimented with drugs in the 1960s and ’70s more than any other before it. Using drugs is more culturally acceptable for them than for the generations that came before.
Generational issues aside, there are other reasons older Americans are increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol. Self-medication may be a big factor. Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is not uncommon at any age when symptoms of mental illness go untreated or when personal issues are not addressed. For older adults experiencing monumental life changes, the emotions that accompany these shifts can be overwhelming. Retiring and no longer having a purpose every day is tough to cope with for many people. Without the ritual of getting up to go to work, doing useful work and socializing with coworkers, many people start to feel useless and depressed.
Older Americans also face the reality of losing close friends, family members and their spouses. Losing a spouse in particular can be very difficult. Many older adults find themselves increasingly lonely. When these issues (loss of work, loss of loved ones and loneliness) are not addressed, it is tempting to turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to feel better. There is one group that may be protected from substance abuse and that is the immigrant population born outside of the U.S. This demographic has far fewer instances of substance abuse when compared to people born in the U.S.
There are many reasons why more and more older Americans are misusing drugs and alcohol, but more importantly there are ways to help them. Watch over and care for the elder members of your family. Monitor their prescriptions and alcohol use and be there for them. They need the respect, love and company of family, and that can be enough to prevent substance abuse.