Laura C.*, age 64, never thought she had a problem. Social drinking, prescription medications and a Xanax or two were part of the framework of her daily lifestyle. It wasn’t until she received her second DUI and faced a jail sentence that she realized the gravity of her situation.
This is much more common than we think, and addiction is sometimes a gradual process that it is often not recognized until someone else intervenes. Decades of social drinking can easily cross the line into dependence. And for men and women ages 50 plus, use of pain medications or anxiety or sleep medications can develop into chemical misuse, including dependence, especially when mixed with alcohol consumption.
For years addiction treatment programs were not age-specific until experts realized that different age groups, just like different genders, have their own unique needs. Age matters. Addiction issues are different for the baby boomer generation and even more different for people in their late 70s, 80s and 90s.
For example, the effects of alcohol on a person change drastically with age. The body metabolizes alcohol and other drugs differently given their decreased body mass and diminished organ function. There are distinct physiological, emotional, spiritual and mental health needs of boomers as well as older adults. Given the strengths of these generations the transformative potential for regaining health, energy and vitality that comes with living in recovery is great.
With addiction, what other differences come with age? Men and women ages 50 plus have life experiences that inform their beliefs about addiction. For example, shame is a major block to getting help for men and women who are in their late 70s or 80s. Many of these people aspired to live the American Dream, coming of age during the Eisenhower years. Many led lives of tremendous accomplishment and success. For them, addiction is viewed as a moral failure. Boomers, on the other hand, came of age on the heels of the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and the assassination of President Kennedy. Their image of the typical drug addict is more likely to be the stoned guy at a rock concert, not their 60-year-old sister who becomes dependent on painkillers after hip replacement surgery. Laura C. adds that in her generation, an alcoholic is “a bum under the bridge. It’s not the successful businessman who falls off his golf cart at the country club. We don’t think of ourselves as alcoholics or addicts. We don’t use the ‘a-word.’ Drinking is a wholly accepted part of our culture.”
What else causes one to cross that fragile line into addiction? A growing number of men and women ages 50 plus use pain medications or anxiety and sleep aids. This use can be dangerous and can develop into dependence. As people age, they have more free time and less responsibility which can mean reduced interaction with others who might notice a progression toward addiction. Every patient is different, and expert clinicians will assess physical and mental health, family history, types of drugs being abused and many other variables before developing a results-oriented treatment plan.
Another effect of addiction to alcohol and other drugs is that it can make people age faster. Conversely, recovery helps people regain health, energy and vitality. It’s important for the boomer and older generations to get treatment that addresses their body, mind and spirit. It is proven that recovery rates tend to be higher among older adults than younger generations due to the fact that older adults have more positive life experiences to draw upon and tend to be more disciplined about recovery.
What to look for in an effective treatment program? Integrated treatment that understands issues for people 50 plus is the key. More often than not, addiction comes with complicating factors.
Physical health and mental health issues such as anxiety, trauma or depression often accompany addiction. Grief and loss, shame, and even bewilderment at how one could end up with an addiction are also part of the puzzle. With such complex disorders, the most effective approach is to integrate addiction with physical and mental health treatment so that all issues are addressed at the same time. Each client’s care plan should include medical, chemical dependency, mental health and spiritual care professionals who include whatever therapies, mental health services and medications that are appropriate.
The good news is that in a supportive recovery setting with a high level of expertise, boomers and older adults have the best chance for a successful recovery. The importance of connecting with others during their program cannot be overstated. The changes made in treatment – the way people think, react and take care of themselves – are new ways of living that take practice. Regaining and maintaining health means learning to live differently and learning to manage a chronic disease. Continuing care groups, mentors and the availability of vast recovery support services and resources offer more hope than ever for boomers and older adults facing addiction.
Laura C. says it best when she concludes, “I used to medicate away my anxiety and depression but now I don’t want to miss one more second of my life. People of my generation hear about treatment and think, if I can’t drink, I’ll never have fun again. The truth is, recovery augments life. Your life gets so much bigger, and you won’t want to waste a second of it.”
*Name changed to protect the privacy of individuals
Brenda J. Iliff, MA is a Clinician, author and noted expert in addiction treatment for older adults. She serves as executive director of Hazelden in Naples, and is recognized as a national speaker on this topic. More than 20 years experience in the addiction field enhances her leadership and expertise in treating this family disease. Iliff first joined Hazelden in 1994 and served in many different roles, including as executive director of Fellowship Club in St. Paul, Minnesota and clinical director of Hazelden’s Women’s Recovery Center at the headquarters in Center City, Minnesota. She is the author of A Woman’s Guide to Recovery.
In response to a growing need for targeted care for men and women ages 50+, Iliff and her staff recently launched new addiction treatment programming in Naples, Florida, designed exclusively for today’s vital baby boomer generation 50+ and active, mobile individuals 70 and older.
To learn more about Hazelden in Naples, call 239-659-2351 or visit www.hazeldenbettyford.org.