Several Factors Contribute To Growing Rate of Substance Abuse Among The Elderly

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Substance abuse is becoming a serious problem among the elderly. Recent estimates say nearly three million Americans aged 55 and older live with alcohol abuse and the number is expected to double by 2020. Meanwhile, drug abuse in adults over 50 has more than doubled between 2002 and 2013.

Elderly Substance AbuseIt is commonly believed substance abuse in the elderly is exacerbated by issues with retirement, but new research indicates retirement is not the only factor that leads to drug and alcohol abuse in later years.

A recent 10-year study published in the Journal of Work, Aging and Retirement claims substance abuse is linked with numerous circumstances associated with leaving the work force — a factor that often coincides with painful later-life events such as the death of spouses and friends.

Lead researchers Drs. Peter A. Bamberger of Tel Aviv University and Samuel B. Bacharach of Cornell University says adults are often poorly prepared to face the numerous changes that occur late in life as well as the new challenges they present.

The researchers note numerous events including deteriorating health and death of spouses and loved ones are common parts of aging, and these events can bring on feelings of depression, purposelessness, and financial strain. All of these issues are well linked to substance abuse.

“We found that the conditions under which people retired, whether they were pushed into it or it was something expected, which they planned for, had great bearing on alcohol and drug habits,” said Bamberger.

“The worst combination we found was among people who took early retirement from jobs they loved because they were terrified their companies were going under. Among all groups studied, this one exhibited the highest incidence of substance abuse.

“Our second major finding was that the conditions experienced once in retirement influenced alcohol and drug habits,” Bamberger continued.

“Even if an individual plans for retirement, he/she might not fully grasp the changes that must be made to his/her lifestyle. As a result, many people experience serious financial straits. Feeling unstable, lonely, and depressed, it isn’t surprising perhaps — but it is unfortunate — that many retirees look to alcohol or drugs for comfort.”

For the study, the researchers conducted an annual phone-based survey of 1,200 workers in the service, construction, and manufacturing markets aged 52-75. The results also indicate retirement can lead to marital strain, which can lead to or agitate issues with substance abuse.

“Financial strain and marital strain, both potential consequences of retirement, elicited problems with sleep. This in particular explained much of males’ misuse of alcohol,” said Bamberger.

The researchers do suggest several ways seniors can help prevent serious problems with substance abuse in later years, including screening and brief interventions aimed at identifying changes that may lead to substance abuse.

“Sometimes awareness alone is enough to bring about positive change,” said Bamberger.

“Even short phone calls or brief Internet-based feedback can be so instrumental. The other way of reversing this trend is to provide ways of coping with the stresses of retirement. Retirement groups and mentors are often able to pick up on signs of deterioration before they become a problem.”

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