Secret Substance Abuse

By Betty Booker | April 5th, 2014

Millions of boomers have drug and alcohol problems. But which? And how do you help? Not pleasant, but real: An estimated 4 million to 8 million boomers are headed into retirement with drug and alcohol problems.

Not pleasant, but real: An estimated 4 million to 8 million boomers are headed into retirement with drug and alcohol problems.

Even these numbers are underreported, researchers think. Substance abuse tends to be hidden by users and, often, by kin.

Still, most of us probably can name someone we think abuses alcohol or drugs. We probably know for sure if we’re that someone.

These painful issues aren’t just individual or familial. They’re a looming national health problem as boomers swell the 65-plus population from about 40 million now to 72 million in 2030.

Risks range from suicide, violence and impaired driving to dysfunctions that cause injuries or financial hardship, often ending with extended and expensive long-term care.

It’s difficult to know what to do. We try to help, and yet the problem often seems intractable if interventions fail. If we’re that someone, our life force still wants us to succeed.


At least 5 percent of the 78 million baby boomers, now ages 50 to 68, are estimated to have addictions.

We may discover that there is more low-key use of harder drugs than currently thought among boomers, who as a youthful generation were more open to drug experimentation, says Dr. J. James Cotter, associate professor of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a health services researcher and an expert on aging trends.

A 2012 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study found that the rate of illicit drug use by people ages 50 to 54 had increased to 7.2 percent that year from 3.4 percent in 2002.

Although alcohol is boomers’ most commonly abused substance, there’s a growing problem with prescription drug misuse or abuse, particularly benzodiazepines, sedatives and hypnotics.


Ascertaining who needs help is difficult. Patients often don’t like to disclose unhealthy habits, even if doctors’ forms ask about drinking and prescription, over-the-counter and illicit drug use.

“How many hard-core users are going to say, ‘Yeah, that’s me,’ ” said Dr. Edward F. Ansello, director of the Virginia Center on Aging at VCU.


“Patients may have years of abuse and you won’t have known unless you have dug for answers. You have to look beyond the obvious,” Ansello said.

Falls and balance issues, depression, memory problems and heart, liver and kidney diseases may not necessarily relate to substance abuse. But they may.

Midlife metabolic changes can worsen the effects of alcohol, which can interact with multiple medications, Ansello noted. Some drugs’ intended therapeutic effect is minimized, negated or intensified by alcohol.

The National Institutes of Health notes that major changes, such as retirement, widowhood and ill health, may lead to loneliness and depression: “That can prompt a person to begin, continue or increase the abuse of med- ications or other drugs.”

But the addictions of most people entering late life will have been with them for years, says Cotter in his free online book, 40 Issues for an Aging Society.


Throwing yourself a lifeline is a courageous decision, even if it’s long in coming.

Figuring out how to help someone else also “can be a very awkward thing,” Ansello said. “The first thing is to communicate concern with the person who is addicted – adult to adult, as equals.”

There are many resources – healthcare providers, social networks, communities of faith, treatment centers and addiction organizations – that confidentially aid those with addictions. “People have different limits and levels of toleration,” Ansello said. “Some people just never say never.” They keep on trying to get their point across, communicating their message out of concern. Some, though, just stop trying to do anything.

In either case – whether you never give up or whether you stop trying to help directly – at least say something. Ansello said, “If your concern isn’t heard, and the person doesn’t change any behavior, you’ll be kicking yourself forever for not having said anything and having missed an opportunity to communicate caring.”

Speak up and you will have sent a caring message – to those addicts who decide to change, to those addicts who don’t change and to all those who care about the addicted, as you do and I do.

Betty Booker, a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter and columnist, can be reached at 

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