Full Speed Ahead

We are all aware of the increasing numbers and dire predictions regarding retirees with substance use disorders (SUD). Is it that retirement is simply a one-way street to drug and alcohol misuse, abuse and addiction, or is there another explanation?

According to a comprehensive 10-year study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), retirement alone does not necessarily lead to SUDs. Why then are the number of senior SUD cases increasing?

The NIH report chalks it up to the underlying reasons why a person retires and to the person's ability to successfully transition from work to retirement. During this transition phase, a new retiree is faced with many challenges and choices. Without guidance and support, a retiree can unsuspectingly enter through a gateway that could lead them down the path to misuse, abuse and addiction of drugs and/or alcohol.

Here are six gateways, garnered from the NIH report, that retirees should be cognizant of:

First gateway to be aware of is whether the retirement was voluntary and solely decided upon by the retiree, involuntary due to organizational pressures, or forced due to unexpected illness of the retiree or a loved one.

NIH results indicate that voluntary, planned retirements seldom result in SUDs. Taking the time to mentally process the upcoming next step in their life journey, reaching out for guidance and support during the transition phase, developing and implementing new routines and activities while creating and maintaining a healthy emotional and social support system will put a retiree on the right path towards a fulfilling life.

Involuntary and/or unplanned retirements can create conflict and confusion and lead the retiree through a precarious gateway that could potentially lead to substance abuse. Specifically, if the individual didn’t want to retire, didn’t have time to plan, didn’t expect to quit their job to become a full time care-giver, or simply didn’t expect to be fired, then taking solace in alcohol or drugs is a real possibility.

Gateway two concerns the age at which a person retires. The NIH study reported that SUDs are likely to crop up more frequently amongst people who retire in their mid- to late-40s.

Gateway three involves the retiree's former workplace. Leaving a stressful work site was found to result in less alcohol consumption in retirement. Leaving a very rewarding job was reported to potentially lead to SUDs principally due to the retirees perceived lost sense of identity and self worth that they experienced in the workforce.

Gateways four concentrates on finances. NIH reports that serious financial straits can lead to feeling unstable, lonely and depressed, causing retirees to use alcohol or drugs for relief.

Marriage is the fifth gateway. The NIH report reveals that roughly two thirds of retirees experience increased marital conflict during the first two years of retirement. This could trigger substance abuse. Promising news on this front is that if the couple perseveres, communicates and compromises during the initial two years of adjustment, then their chances of success are good.

The sixth gateway to be hyper aware of is the retiree's social network. Some occupations are rife with heavy drinking, which can continue into retirement and easily turn into an SUD. Also, if a retiree's new social network involves a culture of recreational drugs such as marijuana or heavy boozing, then they must practice moderation or find new friends.

Everyone deserves a retirement that’s fulfilling and absent of any form of substance dependency. If you suspect that you or someone close to you is “at-risk,” reach out. Talk to your family, friends, and physicians. Don’t hide in the shadows. Step out into the light.

Then you can go Full Speed Ahead.

Allan Goldstein is a retirement coach and Long Beach resident.

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