Substance abuse has been described as a hidden epidemic among people who have reached retirement in age. In the media the attention always seems to be on young people who are substance abusers and not enough attention is given to older adults. Those who are older than 65 years of age are far more likely to be using prescription medication such as sedatives and opiates. One study found that 17% of males over the age of 65 drink alcohol excessively.
Retirement usually refers to the point where people stop work completely. It is possible for people to retire at any age, if they have enough money to do so, but in the US the average retirement age is 67 years of age. The early retirement age in the US is 62. This means that in most instances those who retire will also be elderly. This means that the words elderly and retired are often used interchangeably even though this is not necessarily the case.
There are said to be two types of substance abuser who reach retirement age; the hardy survivor and late onset substance abusers. A hardy survivor refers to those addicts who have been abusing alcohol or drugs for many years but have managed to stay alive. There are also people who may have never had any problems with alcohol or drugs in the past but do develop a problem in retirement.
There are a number of reasons for why people fall into substance abuse in retirement including:
* Many of these individuals will suddenly have a great deal of free time on their hands. If they do not have meaningful things to do they may be tempted to turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to fill their time.
* There tends to be an acceptance of people in retirement who engage in heavy drinking. The justification for this is that these people have worked hard for many years and have earned the right to go a bit wild.
* Work can give people purpose and meaning in their life. When they retire it can feel like they have lost their focal point and may cope with this by turning to substance abuse.
* As people get older they can have increasing worries about their health and their future. Alcohol and drugs offers an easy escape from such worries.
* The practical responsibilities of holding down a job put a certain degree of control over people’s behavior. This control is removed when these individuals retire.
* High functioning addicts can often use their career as a means to hide their addiction. In retirement their negative behavior becomes more apparent.
* Some people who have been looking forward to retirement may experience feelings of an anticlimax if it fails to live up to their expectations. Their disappointment may lead them to engage in inappropriate behaviors such as alcohol abuse.
Substance abuse can be particularly dangerous for people of retirement age because:
* These individuals will usually have far fewer responsibilities than they did during their working life. This means there will be a great deal less holding them back from addiction.
* As people get older they will tend to rely on different prescription medications. Mixing these prescribed medications with alcohol or recreational drugs can be highly dangerous.
* Many older substance abusers live alone and the fact that they no longer work means that they have little contact with other people. This means that their alcohol or drug abuse goes undetected.
* The tolerance level for alcohol and drugs decreases with age. This means that people will be more easily affected by these substances.
* Those who have hit retirement age will be impacted more severally both mentally and physically by substance abuse.
* Physicians may be less likely to refer those of retirement age to addiction specialists.
* Those people who are of retirement age are likely to have fewer reasons to quit their addiction. They do not have the fear of losing their jobs.
* Intoxication makes people more prone to accidents. Those who are older will find it harder to recovery from these injuries than somebody younger.
* Many individuals have symptoms of depression in retirement, and this can be made much worse by substance abuse.
* Retirement can be one of the most satisfying times in a person’s life. They will miss out on this great opportunity by becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs.
If people lack meaning in their life there is a higher risk that they will slip into addiction. A career gives many individuals a meaning in life and when this is taken away it is like they are suddenly rudderless with no real aims. Humans feel highly uncomfortable when their life lacks meanings, and it is at these times that they are most likely to be attracted to addictive substances. The individual is able to replace their career goals with getting high – this is what now gives their life meaning. In order to avoid falling into this trap the individual must work hard to find a purpose in retirement that is not going to lead to suffering.
There are certain retired people who are more at risk of substance abuse such as:
* Those people who have ever previously had a problem with alcohol or drug use.
* Those who have suffered bereavement.
* Anyone with mental health problems such as depression.
* Those people who live alone or feel isolated from their community.
* Men seem to be more likely to fall into substance abuse in retirement.
* Those individuals who are dealing with a great deal of boredom since they gave up work.
* Anyone who has a family history of substance abuse.
* Those who are dealing with financial hardship in retirement.
* If people look back on their life and feel a sense of disappointment they may be tempted to turn to alcohol and drugs for solace.
Substance abuse can completely ruin what can be the most rewarding time in a person’s life. It is therefore important that people do all they can to avoid falling into this trap. This can be achieved by:
* Sticking to the recommended levels for alcohol intake which are 1 drink per day for those over 65 years of age, 2 drinks per day for men under 65, and 1 drink per day for women under 65. In this example a drink is defined as a standard beer, a standard glass of wine, or a standard shot of spirits.
* Boredom can be a problem for people in retirement. They need to make an effort to find interesting things to do that will keep them engaged with life – this is what makes retirement so enjoyable.
* Those people who live alone can easily become isolated and this opens the door for substance abuse. In order to avoid this occurring it is vital that people in retirement continue to enjoy regular social interactions.
* Bereavements can hit people terribly hard and these are more likely to occur as people get older. It is best to turn to therapy and counseling rather than addictive substances to deal with these events.
* If people are suffering from symptoms of depression or other mental health problems they will need to seek professional help for this. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs is not the way to go.
* If people are worried about their level of drinking or drug use they should seek help right away. This problem is only likely to get worse over time.
* Some people feel that their skills and knowledge are wasted in retirement and that they no longer have anything to offer. This is certainly not true and there are plenty of opportunities for acting as mentors for those who are starting their career.
* It is vital that people find new meaning and purpose in their life. This can be found in hobbies or spiritual pursuits.
* Those people who spend too much time with heavy drinkers are likely to fall into the same pattern of consumption. It therefore makes sense to spend more time with non-drinking or only social-drinking friends.
* It is preferable if people plan for their retirement while still working. That way they will able to move from one stage of life to the other more seamlessly.
* Retirement is a wonderful opportunity to experience new things and people should definitely do this.
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