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Substance Abuse in Older Adults: Symptom or Consequence?

One of the things I have learned from older adults is that this generation appreciated the art of the cocktail hour. A martini at 5:00 p.m., wine with dinner, and perhaps a nightcap at the end of the evening was the way many middle-class boomers enjoyed life. We see these habits portrayed in television shows like Mad Men all of the time.

Substance abuse among boomers is at an all time high. A recent USA Today article reports that admissions of older adults to substance abuse treatment programs doubled from 1992 to 2008.  Are boomers reluctant to let go of a lifestyle once associated with having established success? Do we have different cultural definitions of substance abuse than we once did? Or are the stresses among boomers so numerous that alcohol and drugs seem like the only way to cope?

Perhaps the answer involves all of these.

Boomers were the first generation to espouse the enjoyment of alcohol and drugs en masse. It could be the case that some of these boomers who are now entering treatment have had long-standing problems with substance abuse, which now require clinical attention. That said, many of this generation have been able to move on to a life in which drugs and alcohol are recreational.

Maybe there is simply more stigma involved in substance abuse today. Most of us are certainly more aware of the health risks of drug and alcohol abuse. Thanks to countless public service announcements, we are reminded of the dangers of excessive use of alcohol (organ damage) and drugs (remember the frying egg metaphor?).

Yet, I can’t help but think about the unique stresses plaguing this generation. When many boomers were born life expectancy was much lower. Imagine what it must be like to be born and raised in a time when you think you may live into your sixties, only to discover that you may live to be a centenarian!  Though it may be easier to state that boomers, like all of us, want to live forever, it might be better to ask, what are the consequences of a long life?

Every now and then I meet someone in their late nineties and even those who live to be over 100 years of age. Instead of saying, “I am so glad I lived this long,” a number of people say something like, “When am I going to die?”  There is a shock to living a long life.  Even for those lucky enough to feel financially prepared, it is often not pleasant to feel old, to be dependent, and to be living in a foreign facility. Boomers know about the uncertainty of aging, because these individuals are often their parents.

Given that a small percentage of people are actually financially prepared for the uncertainty of a long life, most people are frequently panicked about what the future holds. But that just scratches the surface of what many people actually worry about.  None of us want to grow old or feel dependent. And the thought of all of the medical problems that can happen to us as we age is a burden that other generations have not faced.

Perhaps drinking too much or using drugs is a way to numb the fears that this generation faces. Unfortunately, it comes with a lot of risks, including the development of more debilitating health problems.

What if we could have an honest conversation about the ways that we have extended life without really thinking about the meaning of living longer? Let me be clear, I am not saying that we should do anything different in terms of medical technology—most people want to extend life. However, integrating the advances of our first-world society with an honest discussion about the ramifications and fears that result in a long life could go a long way in helping people cope.

Living a long life is unchartered territory.  Let’s just give people a space to talk about it.

Substance Abuse in Older Adults: Symptom or Consequence?

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D.

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APA Reference
Greenberg, T. (2011). Substance Abuse in Older Adults: Symptom or Consequence?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 19 May 2011
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 May 2011
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