Baby Boomers and Alcoholism: Why More Seniors are Drinking

For many, alcohol abuse is associated with the youth: teenage immaturity, wild college parties, or the 20-something bar scene.

However, recent studies show that not only are seniors 50 and older engaging in dangerous levels of alcohol use, they’re also doing it significantly more now than in the past.

According to a recently published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

  • The number of adults 65 years and older who drank has risen higher than the national average by about 23 percent.
  • The average number of adults 65 and older suffering from alcohol abuse had risen by nearly 107 percent.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that:

  • Older adults are hospitalized just as often for alcohol-related problems as they are for heart attacks.
  • Alcohol-related problems account for about 14 percent of senior emergency room admissions and roughly 20 percent of elderly psychiatric hospital admissions.
  • Roughly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol use disorders.

Baby Boomers are continuously struggling with alcoholism, which raises the questions of why this is happening, what the dangers are, and why it has, until recently, largely gone unnoticed?

Linking Aging and Alcohol Abuse

Some of the maybe more obvious reasons for alcohol misuse among older adults include physical pains and other health problems. However, one major cause linked to the emergence of alcohol abuse among seniors is as a form of self-medication against feelings of depression or anxiety.

Studies show that currently, as many as 1 in 4 seniors have a mental illness and that the estimated total number of older adults struggling with mental health disorders is expected to reach 15 million by 2030.

If an individual was not dealing with these mental health issues before, they can be and frequently are triggered by environmental factors such as facing a newly empty nest or a loss of purpose that can accompany retirement.

While the average transition time from what could be considered regular alcohol use to alcoholism can take years, seniors are much more vulnerable to rapid, dramatic changes in their drinking habits triggered by these sudden, significant changes in their daily routine.

One reason why Baby Boomers may choose to turn to alcohol rather than professional help is due to having lived the majority of their lives during a time when there was a much stronger stigma against mental illness. Some may find it easier or less embarrassing to cope privately with alcohol, despite the obvious dangers.

The same can also be said of having to admit to marital problems or the negative emotions associated with them. A study completed at Duke University that surveyed 11,000 people over the age of 50 found an extremely high prevalence of binge drinkers and also found a correlation between those who engaged in binge drinking being separated, divorced, or widowed.

Dangers Unique to Seniors

While alcohol use disorders can cause a whole host of health problems at any age, they pose even more danger to seniors, mostly due to changes in how the body handles alcohol with age.

While someone may have had the same drinking habits for years, their body may no longer be able to keep up with them, making seniors especially at risk for unintentional over-drinking and the potential for accidents such as falls and fractures that came come with it. Women, in particular, become more sensitive to the effects of alcohol with age.

Heavy drinking can also severely worsen health problems that are common in older adults such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Liver problems
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Memory problems
  • Heart problems

Alcohol’s negative interactions with various over-counter-medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, cough syrup, and various pain medications are also magnified in older adults and have a much higher risk of being fatal.

A Silent Epidemic

We’ve already mentioned why some Baby Boomers might be reluctant to seek help for mental health issues and instead self-medicate with alcohol, which, in turn, could make them equally unlikely to get the help they would need for an alcohol dependency.

There are several other key factors in play that have also contributed to the overwhelming lack of attention that has been paid to this swiftly growing problem. Many seniors who are struggling with alcohol abuse may go unnoticed due to the symptoms of alcoholism being so similar to medical and behavioral issues common among seniors, such as:

  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Dementia and memory problems
  • Depression
  • Diabetes

Another issue is the lack of adequate screening by physicians, which can be due to either a lack of training or something far worse: a bias that alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders are “not worth the effort” of treating in seniors.

In fact, this surprisingly pervasive bias is part of why there is only very limited data on how best to treat older adults struggling with alcohol dependency. Older people dealing with alcoholism often simply does not inspire the same sense of urgency that these problems do when present in younger people and is even often seen as a “waste” of resources.

What Can We Do?

Many relatives of Baby Boomers who are struggling with substance abuse are ashamed of the problem and will choose to ignore it rather than admit that they need help. For seniors suffering from alcohol dependence, it is vital that they get the help they need, which is why breaking down stigmas that still surround both mental illness and substance abuse to some degree is so important.

Both seniors and their families should educate themselves on both the effects of alcohol on older adults, learn what alcohol misuse in seniors looks like, and be open to talking about the issues that might be causing them to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism. If you think you or your family members are suffering the wrath of alcoholism, do not be afraid to call Ocean Breeze Recovery at 844-554-9279. Give our addiction specialists a ring or contact us online to learn more about tailored treatment plans for you.

Can You Treat Alcoholism Without the 12 Steps?

When it comes to maintaining long-term sobriety outside of a rehabilitation treatment program, the oldest and probably most well-known organization is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Founded in 1935, AA and its 12-Step Program has been the go-to for treating alcoholism for decades, with many addiction treatment centers incorporating at least some version of the 12 Steps in their own treatment therapies.

AA is a faith-based program where, in order to succeed in their recovery and progress through the 12 steps, members are instructed to admit their lack of control over both alcohol and their own lives and turn themselves over to a higher power. While the foundations of AA are based in Christianity, the 12-Step program is meant to be nonspecific regarding religion and focus more on a spiritual awakening.

However, the religious undertones, as well as the idea of turning your will over to an external force, pose a problem to some and make completing the program difficult. People might be more likely to succeed in a more secular program or one with a different focus or structure.

But some people may feel pressured to join a 12-Step program because it’s the most well-known and they are under the impression that without it, real recovery isn’t possible.

But just like how recovery itself is not a “one-size-fits-all” process, the same holds true for recovery programs. It’s important to remember that AA and its 12-Step program is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to treating alcoholism.

In fact, in many cases, AA and the 12-Step program has been found to not be nearly as effective as people may think it is.

Does the 12-Step Program Work?

Trying to determine whether a program is effective can be a tricky business, in no small part because each person’s experience with any program is inevitably going to be different from someone else’s.

There’s also the fact that for many, if not all, of these support programs, you get out of it what you put in, and if someone is unable to fully commit, then they will probably not find success in not only the 12-Step program but in any program.

What we can look at to judge AA’s 12-Step program are some objective strengths and weaknesses that both substance abuse experts and those who have gone through the program have identified over the course of the many decades it has been in use.

There are indeed many elements that make the 12 Steps an effective program for treating alcoholism, including:

  • There is an abundance of AA groups and meetings. Out of any alcoholism support groups and programs, AA is by far the most common, and it’s easy to find a group near you. Areas that are more rural or otherwise have less access to alcoholism treatment will still most likely have a local AA chapter to turn to.
  • The support of a strong social network. In that same vein, since AA has been around for so long and is so widely instituted, its networks of support are both widespread and firmly rooted. Combined with that is the emphasis the 12-Step program places on having a sponsor to provide encouragement and motivation as well as regularly attending group meetings and finding strength through your peers.
  • AA is established and well-organized. AA and the 12-Step program it is based around has had the benefit of more than 70 years to shape it. Alcoholics Anonymous is an institution and therefore is often more well-equipped and organized when it comes to structure, plans, and resources than other, newer groups might be.
  • There are no dues or fees for members of AA. Prohibitive cost can be a major hurdle when it comes to sticking with a treatment program. Even if it’s working, someone might drop out if it becomes too expensive for them to stay with it. While a group might do a collection to cover expenses like rent or refreshments, there is no mandatory cost required to join AA.

However, while these facts speak to the strength of AA as an organization, when you shift the focus more to the actual 12 Steps themselves that the weaknesses of the program start to become more evident, such as:

  • AA has remained mostly unchanged since it was founded. Obviously, the world is not the same as it was in 1935, as well as addiction, how we see it, and how we treat it. While newer sober support programs like SMART Recovery make it a point to keep up with the latest in the science of recovery treatment, AA and its 12 Steps have relied on the same “one-size-fits-all” techniques for almost 80 years, techniques that may no longer be as effective in today’s world.
  • The program’s emphasis on negative feelings of powerlessness and guilt. Continuing in that train of thought, while the idea behind the 12 Steps may have been revolutionary at the time, for many they can feel outdated and even counterproductive. The 12-Step program demands that those in it break themselves down to be built back up, focusing on the notion that you are incapable of taking responsibility not just for your alcoholism but for yourself as well, that there is something wrong with you, and instilling what can feel more like shame than motivation.
  • Prioritizing coping over healing. While AA obviously wants its members to avoid relapse and maintain sobriety, the means of doing so is heavily focused on using skills to cope with addictive behaviors rather than addressing the underlying issues that are causing them. Because of this, many people find the 12-Step program might help them stay sober, but leave them still struggling with the problems that led to becoming alcoholics in the first place.
  • Issues with retention and completion rates. Despite how ingrained the 12-Step program is as the standard for alcoholism recovery, the hard numbers tell a different story. According to several studies, the 12-Step Program has been found to be effective for about 20 percent of those that try it, with the other 80 percent usually stopping after just one month. At any given time, only five percent of those still attending AA has been there for a year.

So there are many reasons why the 12-Step Program might not work for someone that are not the fault of the individual. But then, if not AA, what other recovery options are there?

Are There Alternatives to AA?

Luckily, if the 12-Step program has proven itself ineffective for you and your recovery needs, there are many alternatives to choose from. Even if they are not physically available to you, the majority of them have a strong Internet presence and can provide support with online forums for members to share their experiences in, which for some who are uncomfortable sharing in person may even find to be a preferable option.

A few of the most popular alternatives to AA and the 12-Step program include:

  • SMART Recovery: As previously mentioned, Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART Recovery), is based on scientific research and is always evolving to match the latest knowledge in the field of addiction treatment. Like the 12 Steps, SMART Recovery is broken down into multiple stages, but focused on motivation, creating an overall positive atmosphere, and changing not just behaviors but also the emotions and thoughts behind them.
  • Women For Sobriety: Founded in 1975 for the purpose of creating a recovery program that was explicitly geared towards women, the goal of Women For Sobriety is not to be anti-male but to address the specific psychological needs that many women have during recovery. WFS operates under the belief that many women are already struggling with low self-esteem or shame that has been culturally instilled in them and don’t need more of it from their recovery program. Instead of the 12 Steps, WFS’s treatment program is based around the 13 Affirmations that point toward positive goals rather than admitting negative faults, such as “Happiness is a habit I am developing,” “Enthusiasm is my daily exercise,” and “I am responsible for myself and for my actions.”
  • LifeRing Secular Recovery: For people who would prefer a recovery program without the spiritual aspects of the AA and the 12-Step program, LifeRing is not based on any ideas of a higher power. Instead, they focus on the belief that each person has the power within them to control their alcoholism, having its member visualize themselves as two people: the Addict Self and the Sober Self, and work on weakening the former and strengthening the latter. LifeRing does this by connected Sober Selves through in-person and online group meetings to create a strong network of support without any kind of structured stages, steps, or sponsors. Instead, they emphasize that the best person to design an effective sobriety program is you since you will know what does and doesn’t work for you personally.

These are just a small sample of the variety of AA alternatives available for you to try until you find the one that is best suited to you and will give you what you need to manage your addiction and stay sober.

What Matters Most in Recovery

So hopefully, it’s clear now that choosing to recover without the 12 Steps is definitely possible, as the program, while well-established and certainly helpful for some, is not the guaranteed road to successful recovery that some might claim it is.

In fact, Anne Fletcher, award-winning medical writer and author of Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction Treatment, writes, “If nothing else, we know that people have better treatment outcomes when they’re offered choices and not coerced to accept one thing or another.”

Ultimately, the fact of it is, as previously stated, an alcoholism treatment program, even one that is tailored to your exact needs, is only going to be as effective as you make it. Whether you opt to join AA or to try recovery without the 12 Steps, it is still crucial that you do at least choose something.

Studies have shown that those who remain abstinent from alcohol for at least five years have a relapse rate of less than 15 percent, and recovery support programs are a big part of what makes that possible.

If you or someone you care about has been struggling with alcoholism or other substance addictions, Ocean Breeze Recovery can get you or your loved one on the path to a productive, drug-free life with the help of our professional, compassionate staff. Call (855) 960-5341 now to get more information from one of our addiction specialists.