Substance Abuse & Addiction Risk Factors for Older Americans
Older Americans use drugs for the same reasons that teenagers do: to cope, out of curiosity, and from a lack of satisfying pursuits or passions. Depression, a sense of one’s mortality, boredom and loneliness are gateway experiences. They are best seen as forms of emptiness that demand to be filled and they will be, whether by default or design.
Using to Cope
The recovery acronym H.A.L.T. advises that we must never become too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. This bit of wisdom is most commonly used to guard against relapse and/or anxiety and depression. It can also be used as a framework for understanding the things that predispose and perpetuate our use of drugs and alcohol.
If we dig a bit deeper, we find that we Hunger for much more than food. It takes courage to identify what we truly want because identifying it necessitates going after it.
As we age, our willingness to take risks and try new things tends to decline sharply. Alcohol and drugs offer immediate relief and distraction from the fear of knowing and pursuing our hearts longing.
We notice that Anger never travels alone but rather is accompanied by unmet needs and conflicting emotions (unresolved grief and loss, having a greater sense of one’s time being limited). Older Americans show a high preponderance of depression.
Unfortunately and dangerously, many of us use alcohol (a known depressant) to cope with depression, which not only fuels feelings of anger, sadness, and loss, it also creates and perpetuates a sense of detachment from self.
We find that Loneliness can occur even when we’re surrounded by others. We struggle because we lack intimacy and connection. As life circumstances change, we often find ourselves bereft of people we strongly identify with and/or feel safe being vulnerable with.
Drinking or drugging alone eliminates the possibility of solitude and perpetuates social isolation.
We realize that Tired is much more than a matter of sleep. It is a state of being drained, depleted, or burned out. It was a long road to get to retirement. Too many of us find that we lived with only two speeds: all out or dead stop.
When we lack motivation or compelling reasons to continue growing, we become complacent and stagnant. These are all the disease of addiction requires to take hold.
Using to Offset Boredom
Just as adolescents require outlets and social opportunities, so do the retired and elderly. As one client explained to me, “I’m at an age where everyone I know is either dying or moving to Florida!” For most folks, before we can truly welcome new opportunities to socialize with same aged peers, we must come to terms with aging and the changes it brings to our lives. I routinely point toward senior community centers, outing clubs, and hobby enthusiasts, only to hear, “I don’t want to sit around with a bunch of old people!”
Drugs and alcohol were social lubricant and/or substitutes for companionship and friendships in our youth. Many of us find ourselves regressing to former habits because it’s easier and because it takes less courage to be willing to try new things and meet new people. If we keep at the forefront of our thoughts that these folks are in the same circumstances that we are, we can be open to having more connections and more fun. We never outgrow the need for friendships.
Using Out of Curiosity
It seems that unlike past generations, a high percentage of Baby Boomers have not come to an older age gracefully. A very high percentage of us come with a history of having abused drugs and alcohol in our youth. Curiosity led us to experiment at an early age and in the absence of more enticing options, we find ourselves wondering what the newer stuff is like.
While we grew up with no small number of illicit drug choices, we find that things have changed dramatically. Even marijuana, which seemed so benign in our younger years has radically morphed in appearance and potency.1 Abuse of pain medications was not common for our generation and the plethora of designer drugs available is not only abundant, but potentially only a few mouse clicks away.
In our youth we felt invulnerable. Age and experience have taught us to weigh the risks. Unfortunately, as we consider the pros and cons, many of us feel we have little to lose. Our choices must be made in the full light of day. It may indeed be harder to invest in ourselves as we age, but the alternatives run from unfulfilling to downright dangerous.
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