The Struggle of the Older Addict
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The Struggle of the Older Addict


This post was originally published on November 6, 2014.

A recent New York Times article reports that adults 55 and older are struggling with addiction more than ever (making Frank’s How I Got Sober story quite prescient). The Times story quotes Sylvia Dobrow of Stockton, California, who says she used to drink “like a lady…[with]tuna and chardonnay” but towards the end of her drinking, it became a 24-hour affair of vodka and skim milk. In other words, she went from Downton Abbey to A Clockwork Orange in retirement. Well, maybe not A Clockwork Orange but sophisticated to cheap drinking is usually the last sign before full-blown alcoholism. I should add that just because she was drinking with tuna doesn’t mean she wasn’t feeling the mental effects of alcoholism while doing so; isn’t glamorizing the drinking by detailing that tuna was involved a giveaway? Anyway, Dobrow hid her alcohol abuse from her family until she fell out of bed, got a black eye and was taken by her two daughters to a rehab catering to adults 55 and up. Dobrow, who was 73 at the time, stayed for 30 days of treatment and has been sober ever since. Three years after rehab, she went back to school to get credentialed as a substance abuse counselor and now works part time at the rehab she attended like a true comeback kid.

Three thousand miles away, Pamela Noffeze went to Hazelden in Naples, Florida when she was 58. She says that she didn’t realize she had a problem with alcohol until her daughter threatened to ban her form seeing her grandsons because of her frat-boy addiction to a case of light beer a day. At Hazelden, she found out that she was also addicted to Klonopin, the anti-anxiety medication her psychiatrist prescribed her to help her get through her divorce. She’s now 61 and attends 12-step meetings in Naples where she found out that many people her age “have cocktails every night and find themselves addicted because some doctor gave them Ambien or pain pills for arthritis.”

A Growing Problem

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2.8 million older adults in the US meet the criteria for alcohol abuse. The journal Addiction reports that this number is expected to reach 5.7 million by 2020. In 1992, 102,000 people over 50 sought treatment for substance abuse, a figure which more than doubled to 230,000 by 2008. It’s not just alcohol, either. The rate of illicit drug use among adults 50 to 64 went up to 6% in 2013 from 2.7% in 2002.

Dr. John Dyben from the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach believes that old habits die hard and two or three wine glasses a night is now a problem for people in their late 60s because of the way the metabolism slows down. But this shouldn’t be news, right? Obviously I can’t eat triple cheeseburgers and not work out at almost 30 like I did when I was 20. I have to work out constantly to be able to eat half the amount of crap I ate 10 years ago. It’s not just the obvious deterioration of health that can increase risk in drinking for older adults but their lifestyles as well: retirement plays a huge role in a bulk of alcoholic cases for older adults. The book Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic, which studied this issue, reported that it wasn’t just the boredom and money that was the cause but the conditions leading to retirement and the economic and social nature of it.

Retirees have to deal with issues they never dealt with their entire lives so they rarely posses the skills to properly move on. Loneliness and depression are major factors, not to mention the late-life losses of spouses, friends, careers and purpose.

Dangerous Misconceptions

Older adults who receive medication are justified in taking it, despite the negative consequences in their lives—well, that and they’re simply too tired to change. Not everyone is as pro-active as Ms. Dobrow of Stockton. As a matter of fact, her story seems to be rare. Brenda J. Iliff, the executive director at Hazelden in Naples, brings up the interesting point that a lot of the signs of addiction and chemical dependence resemble normal symptoms of aging, such as confusion, memory loss and disorientation. (This is good for me to know in case my father starts to listen to the Grateful Dead in his room late at night.)

The other misconception is that older adults are “untreatable” and stubborn. This may be true in comic strips and sitcoms, but Paul Sacco of the University of Maryland’s social work school says that this is “lore, this belief, that as people grow older they become less treatable…but there’s a large body of literature saying that the outcomes are as good with older adults. They’re not hopeless.”

And hope is exactly what everyone, not just older adults, needs. If I were part of a class of people that other generations see as hopeless, I’d have trouble getting help or admitting I needed it (oh, wait I am, did and do). Young people aren’t that different from older adults in this way. Athletes in their prime need positive reinforcement and hope from their coaches to excel just as our elders need hope and purpose to excel in the later years of their lives. Whether or not they can is irrelevant, just as it is for athletes; the point is that many just need simple reinforcement.

We can change the way we prescribe and screen older adults. Not expecting older adults to abuse substances, whether they mean to or not, is the perfect set up for an earlier death or miserable life. My grandfather always drank and blew smoke rings while watching football. He didn’t die of an alcohol-related death but I definitely thought that there was absolutely nothing wrong with his drinking. Was there? Can’t say for sure. But luckily, as awareness about addiction among this segment of the population grows, other kids can—and then their grandparents can hopefully get the help they need.

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About Author

Carlos Herrera is a comedian, photographer and writer whose work can also be found on The Fix . He has been featured in LA Weekly and has performed at The Hollywood Improv among other places.