Excerpted from “America’s Elderly Face Growing Drug Addiction Problem.”
By Toni Clarke. Reuters.
May 17, 2006
When Patrick Gallagher first began nodding off at dinner, his family thought it was a symptom of old age. Their fears grew as it worsened. Withdrawing from the world at age 64, Gallagher was addicted to a cocktail of alcohol and prescription painkillers. “My whole life was centered around making sure I had an adequate supply of drugs and alcohol,” said the former instructor at the University of Miami. Gallagher, of Jensen Beach, Florida, is an elderly substance abuser, a fast-growing group in the United States as baby boomers age.
A government survey estimates that the number of adults aged 50 or older with substance abuse problems will double to 5 million in 2020 from 2.5 million in 1999, in large part due to their comfort with prescription drugs. Unlike their predecessors, the Woodstock generation is comfortable taking medications for a wide range of problems, including pain, insomnia, depression and anxiety. As a result, they are more vulnerable to substance abuse in later life, experts say. So-called “late onset” substance abuse is often linked to medical problems and the emotional traumas that can accompany old age, from isolation to the death of friends and family.
Of 495,859 emergency-room hospital visits in the United States in 2004 for the non-medical use of pharmaceuticals, 32,556 were by people aged 55 to 64 years old and 31,203 were by people older than 65, according to the first national government survey of its kind. It’s not just prescription drug abuse that is on the rise. Illicit drug use is also increasing, though the absolute numbers are still relatively small. While pharmaceutical companies are introducing new medications to combat pain, anxiety and sleeplessness, supposedly without the potential for abuse, those drugs can carry their own problems.
Karl Benzio, MD, CMA Member, Director, Lighthouse Network: “Science, Systems, and Self (our Flesh), dysfunctionally mixed, produces a potent cocktail: Drug and alcohol abuse in those over 50 years old. Some of the specific ingredients: We have better recognition and treatment options for substance abusers thus avoiding premature death from the drugs or medical complications, more beneficial treatments for stress and pain syndromes, and better understanding regarding the adverse role which stress, lack of sleep and pain play in our spiritual, psychological and physiological functioning. We have fragmented systems and mobile lifestyles which don’t allow continuity of care by the same primary for decades so easy short term remedies become more chronic treatment modalities leading to addiction and due to the above reasons and a chaotic society, more people are starting anxiolytics, sleepers, and pain medications in their late 30’s and 40’s. Looking at individual psyche, acceptance and utilization of prescription medications has increased in the boomer generation, the need to be comfortable and unwillingness to tolerate discomfort has increased and the mentality of a cure-all in pill form has flourished. The straw that stirs the drink is our deviance from the Word and the treatment plan for spiritual, psychological, and physiological (brain chemistry) peace the Word prescribes and our unwillingness to take personal responsibility and make life transforming decisions and application using God’s Word. As physicians, we need to 1-always be looking at how our patients are dealing with the stress and discomfort in their lives, and 2-always be role modeling or coaching Biblical application in stress management skills or referring them to someone who can coach more intensively.