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Boomers on Drugs

Families are being torn apart as addiction rates rise. The good news: There's help.

Ron photographed at his home

Family and friends staged an intervention for Ron Dash in 2005. The 57-year-old has been sober and straight ever since. — Photo by David Eustace

Within hours, the family and Bob boarded a plane to Florida, where Ron was scheduled to enter residential treatment — that day — for alcoholism and drug addiction. At the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Ron would spend the next 48 hours in a sweaty, hazy, queasy detox, coming down from booze, tranquilizers, the narcotic painkiller OxyContin, and the sleeping medication Ambien. Only after the drugs had left his bloodstream would he begin the intense individual and group therapy, with about 30 other men from their 20s through their 50s, that would launch his life as a sober person.

At 57, Ron has been sober and straight for more than five years. The number of aging boomer addicts, however, continues to grow. The result: the first sizable population of over-50 adults to struggle not just with alcohol but also with drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a federal agency. And as the nation's 77 million baby boomers age, the agency predicts, the number of drug addicts who qualify for senior discounts will only grow. In a report published in December 2009, SAMHSA disclosed that 4.3 million adults age 50 and older had used an illicit drug in the preceding year. The number of boomers with substance-abuse problems will double from 2.5 million in 1999 to 5 million in 2020, the agency forecasts. Not surprisingly, SAMHSA projects that the need for treatment will also double, as longtime abusers gain greater access to prescription meds.

"The idea of 'better living through chemistry' — that you can feel better by taking a pill — that mind-set is killing boomers."  —John Dyben, clinical director at the Hanley Center

The explosion in midlife drug abuse is tearing families apart, ruining careers, destroying addicts' health, and driving up health care costs. But not all the news is bad: The social stigma of addiction, though still present, is easing as it becomes clear that addicts are neighbors, friends, grandmothers, husbands. That awareness forces fewer addicts underground. Plus, it makes them more willing to seek help than yesterday's alcoholics were. Rehab is no magic solution, but when older addicts find the right treatment — be it a local 12-step meeting or an inpatient rehab program — recovery can transform a family's life.

In 2005 — the same year that Ron Dash checked into the Hanley Center — Fred Blow, Ph.D., noticed "a lot more boomers suddenly coming into treatment programs with cocaine problems." Says Blow, a leading researcher on aging and addiction: "We'd never seen that before in this population." This new crop of coke users, he says, are middle-aged, middle-class, and often retired. And now their free time is killing them: When retirement is bereft of fulfilling activities, Blow says, some people turn to drugs to fill the void.

Blow, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School, recalls a 58-year-old retiree who had taught school for 30 years. "He had smoked a little marijuana before," says Blow, "but never had a problem. Now here he is entering treatment for a full-blown addiction to crack cocaine. He had too much time on his hands and turned to coke to cope." One-third of boomers who enter treatment qualify as these "late-onset" addicts, Blow estimates. "This trend is going to continue," he says. "We need to be prepared for it."

Though alcohol remains the most commonly abused substance among the upper age brackets, drug use is rising. Among those age 50 and up, treatment-facility admissions for cocaine abuse quadrupled from 1992 to 2008; for heroin abuse they more than doubled. Prescription-medication and marijuana abuse also climbed significantly. "Whereas alcohol was the dominant, singular problem pushing people into treatment in the past," Blow says, "now we're seeing more cases of a multiple-substance-abuse problem — people using alcohol plus marijuana, or alcohol plus cocaine."

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