Full Speed Ahead

There’s a silent epidemic going round that’s putting millions of American retirees at risk. It’s doubled in size in the last decade, it’s showing no sign of slowing down, and it’s remained largely unrecognized.

What is this scourge that’s growing in leaps and bounds and entrapping our aging adults in its clutches?

It’s the misuse, abuse and dependance on alcohol and drugs. It’s a disease and not a moral failing and it’s hiding in plain sight because its symptoms mirror many of the common signs that come along with aging such as forgetfulness, stumbling or slurred speech.

Admittedly, our grannies and grandpas are probably the last people you’d think of as having monkeys on their backs. But as I’ve written in past columns, statistics don’t lie and the current empirically-based data indicates that both alcohol and drug abuse are on the rise amongst retirees 65 years and older.

Although both dependencies are usually lumped together, they are in fact very separate medical issues. To afford them the attention they both warrant, we’ll examine them separately, beginning with alcohol abuse.

Last weekend, I attended a Father's Day shindig at a friend’s house. Seated at the head of the table and presiding over the festivities was my buddy's 80-year-old father. As the afternoon wore on, his Dad’s speech began to slur as he drained his fourth glass of wine. By early evening, he had passed out on his favorite recliner and my buddy had to carry him into a guest room so he could sleep it off.

His father's bingeing was nothing new, yet no one in his family thought he had a drinking problem and needed help. In their view, their Dad’s excessive drinking was more of a personality flaw than a health issue. As my friend said, “ my old man’s drinking isn’t hurting anyone, so we pretty much turn a blind eye to it and let him be. It’s no big deal.”

Alcohol abuse and dependency is a big deal. A very big deal. Seniors are hospitalized as often for alcohol-related problems as they are for the number one killer of Americans — heart attacks. Furthermore, their Dad’s drinking might not be hurting anyone at present, but studies indicate it leads to mental and physical health problems for the father and via a ripple effect for his close friends and family as well. Alcoholism is an equal opportunity destroyer.

The leading form of substance abuse in this country is alcoholism. It is underestimated and under-diagnosed for retirees, which prevents many of them from getting help. A 2015 national survey reported that 16 percent, or about 3 million, American retirees suffering from alcohol dependance. Add more than 6 million retirees engaging in monthly binge drinking, (five drinks or more at one seating), and top it off with the roughly 27% of women and 49% percent of men between 75 and 85 years old reporting excessive daily drinking and you’ve pretty much got the whole messy picture.

For those of us who do imbibe, myself included, the burning question becomes how much is too much? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse recommends no more than seven drinks per week and/or two drinks per occasion. Anything more and you’re “at risk” because as we age we metabolize alcohol more slowly. Those tequila shots and beer chasers you drank into the wee hours of the night in college will land you smack on your keister if you try drinking the same amount of booze today. In fact, even small amounts of alcohol can be a problem depending on what medications it’s combined with.

Experts expect 6 million retirees to fall victim to alcohol dependency disease by 2020. So does that mean retirement will put you on the fast track to becoming an alcoholic? No, it does not — if you stick to a few simple guidelines: 1.Practice moderation. 2. Know the signs and pitfalls of excessive drinking. 3. Seek help if you need it. 4. Work at keeping your life emotionally fulfilling and intellectually engaging.

Stay tuned for the next column of FULL SPEED AHEAD as we continue to dig into this growing epidemic and try to make some sense of it.

Allan Goldstein is a retirement coach and Long Beach resident.

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