NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Your golden years aren't supposed to be full of misbehavior and depravity. The widespread belief is that seniors live wholesome lives filled with tumblers of warm milk and bowls filled with tapioca soft foods while taking required minimum distributions from their diligently cultivated 401(k)s. Yet the prevailing evidence is a stark contrast showing that many are plunging into addiction.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has estimated that by 2020, the number of older people who need substance abuse treatment will increase from 1.7 million in 2003 to 4.4 million.

“17% of older adults struggle with drug or alcohol issues,” said Brenda Iliff, executive director of the Hazelden treatment facility in Naples, Fla.

Partly that number jump just is because Baby Boomers, the huge population cohort born between 1946 and 1964, are stampeding into their retirement years with 10,000 a day leaving the workforce. But partly too it’s because Boomers bring along their own attitudes toward drugs.

“This group experimented more with drugs when they were in their 20s and 30s, and may have a higher comfort level using drugs of all kinds than their parents did,” said Judy Fenster, associate professor at the Adelphi University School of Social Work in Garden City, N.Y.

What exactly are aging Boomers getting stoned on? The better question might be what aren’t they using. That’s because Iliff said she sees prescription drug abuse, especially opioids such as oxycontin, but she said Boomers also like their cocktails, beer and wine, and at least some have a fondness for street drugs such as marijuana and heroin.

Smack? Indeed. “Heroin can be easier to get than prescription drugs,” said Iliff. She also said that in some senior communities there are rising counts of HIV infection, often due to intravenous drug use.

But Boomers, many of them, grew up toking marijuana - and for some, their arrival into the 60+ age group also seems a kind of rerun of the smoke-filled 1960s. Just one thing: a senior’s body does not function like a teen's. A complication, said Iliff, is that as we age our bodies process alcohol and drugs more inefficiently. A person who could handle two Manhattans at dinner at 30 may be blotto after one at 65. The liver and the kidneys don’t work as efficiently. “We get rid of poisons less well,” said Iliff.

Another, huge complication is that seniors often are on a regimen of prescription drugs - which may interact poorly with recreational drugs and alcohol, said Iliff. “One plus one does not always equal two for them,” she said. 

The money question is why are Boomer seniors getting stoned?


Said Damon Raskin, a Los Angeles physician who specializes in addiction, it’s often because they are bored or lonely or depressed.

Kristen Lee Costa, a social worker who teaches at Northeastern University, elaborated.

“Many seniors face a host of life stressors - including loss - that can range from partners, to job, to friends and even a consistent structure and routine," she said. "These conditions lead to heightened anxiety, and any senior experiencing this knows how challenging it can be. Many seniors increase their use of alcohol and drugs to escape the difficult and dark emotions associated with isolation and loss.”

Raskin added that substance abuse problems “can be hidden a lot easier with this population.” That’s because many are retired and so they don’t miss work - a loud tip-off to out of control addictions in younger people. Many also live alone, so there is no spouse or partner to see recurring abuse.

Senior addictions often are not noticed even by healthcare professionals. A primary symptom of substance abuse is memory loss and, said Raskin, among seniors many health care professions chalk up a faulty memory to simple aging, not to a daily pint of vodka plus a handful of pills. The other main sign of an addicted senior, said Raskin, is falls and, again, falling is often associated with aging. So the clues often are missed.

More bad news is that “it is hard to get seniors into treatment,” said Iliff.


With younger populations threats often work - job termination, driver’s license loss, and so on. Seniors may not care about any of that. Plus, many seniors just are in denial that they have a problem and until a problem is acknowledged, treatment cannot work.

And yet, “when they do go into treatment, they respond well,” said Iliff. “They usually follow the rules -- the success rates are high.”

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.