BY NINA MALKIN
It had always been “just beer” for Danny Smith*, who began imbibing at age 13. He never graduated to hard liquor or other drugs, nor considered his drinking a problem. Then, two years ago, while tinkering with an old jeep for fun, Danny moved a fender and felt sudden searing pain in his shoulder. Complications with surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff left the heavy equipment mechanic unable to return to work, and forced his wife to take a job in another state. “I was alone, depressed and basically felt worthless,” Danny, 57, recalls. “That’s when drinking took over.” As Danny describes it, he’d wake up, feed his dogs and crack his first beer–ultimately finishing forty a day at his lowest point.
Sadly, Danny’s story isn’t unique. According to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, older adults are hospitalized for alcohol-related problems as much as for heart attacks. And while alcohol remains the leading substance abuse cause of hospital admissions for people 50-plus, boomers are increasingly turning to illicit drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s most recent national survey found illicit drug use among adults aged 50 to 64 rose from a rate of 3.4 percent to 7.2 percent over the last ten years.
Our Addiction Is Different
“Baby boomers struggles with addiction are different than those of younger people because their problems are very different,” explains Akikur Mohammad, M.D., associate professor of addiction medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and director of LA-based treatment center Inspire Malibu. “Some are battling physical pain due to aging-related illness and diminished abilities. Others have emotional pain from a range of traumatic experiences, are burdened by caring for elderly parents, or face financial challenges due to life on a fixed, limited income.”
What’s more, we boomers came of age when recreational drug use was widespread–indeed, we coined the use of “party” as a verb. Plus, unlike our youngers, our generation is fiercely independent, so we can be more prone to the practice of self-medication. So even those not facing the physical, emotional or economic hardships of aging–folks who simply have too much time and disposable income on their hands–can descend into addiction. If you wonder if your partying may be a problem, take the self-test devised by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence here: http://ncadd.org/index.php/learn-about-alcohol/alcohol-abuse-self-test.
Our Treatment Is Tailored
If your self-test results concern you, know that help is available–and will be tailored to more than your age. “Treatment must be individualized to each person’s unique problems and needs,” says Dr. Mohammad. “No two people are alike in their struggles, so it’s important to perform a proper assessment to isolate the root cause and determine the best therapies, which may include medication along with proven evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapies.” Recovery is a lifelong process–one day at a time, as they say–but Dr. Mohammad points out that the first step gets you halfway there: “Seeking help if you really want to change is 50 percent of the treatment.”
Danny, four weeks sober when he spoke to Fifty Is the New Fifty, is thankful that he took that step–and so are his wife, kids and grandchildren. “It requires a bigger person to admit you have a problem than to hide it and deny it,” he says. “Look yourself in the mirror, consider all the medical issues you’re creating for yourself and get the help you need.”
* Name has been changed.
An all-around wordsmith, Nina Malkin is a journalist, novelist, copywriter and memoirist. She’s also an avid collector of lovely things from eras past–read her musings athttp://www.vintagevirna.blogspot.com/