Maybe it wasn’t rock bottom, but Clare Mannion can’t imagine how it could have been worse, finding herself, as she did, drinking airplane bottles of vodka in her closet.
Mannion was no rebellious teen, no exhausted young mother trying to escape the trials of parenthood, no office associate working her way up the corporate ladder by after-hours imbibing with colleagues.
Mannion was in her early 60s, married and a professional Realtor when she began hiding her drinking from her husband.
“I thought I was a social drinker,” said Mannion, 67. “Someplace in my late 40s and early 50s, I believe I crossed over that line. It is a progressive disease, and I progressed completely unaware.”
A spate of recent studies, coupled with plentiful anecdotal evidence, suggests that Mannion’s progression is hardly rare.
A rising number of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are turning into baby boozers, with steady spikes in alcohol and drug consumption, of the legal and illegal kind.
The trend is alarming doctors, substance abuse specialists, family members and, frankly, some boomers themselves who wonder how, after decades of problem-free drinking, they’re finding themselves in rehab.
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that the proportion of older adults engaged in “high-risk drinking” jumped 65 percent, to 3.8 percent, between 2002 and 2013. For a man, that means five or more drinks a day at least once a week during the past year; for a woman, it’s four drinks in a day.
At the Hazelden Betty Ford Center in Naples, Fla., more than 50 percent of the clinic’s population is age 50 or older, said Minnesota native Brenda Iliff, the center’s executive director.
By 2020, up to 5.7 million Americans over age 50 will have a substance use disorder, according to Hazelden.
The spike has spurred a treatment program for boomers and older adults, called Recovery@50Plus. The program focuses on the unique challenges of this demographic, including chronic pain management, financial setbacks that lead to excessive behaviors, and the shame they feel when confronted by their children.
The problem spans continents. In the United Kingdom, the number of alcohol-specific deaths in people 50 and older has risen 45 percent since 2001, according to the Office for National Statistics. Numbers remain stable over 15 years for those under 50.
Australian data found that cannabis use more than doubled among this age group over nine years.
Then there’s the painkiller epidemic.
“It is not just about alcohol,” wrote British geriatric psychiatrist Tony Rao in the British Medical Journal. “It is also about illicit drugs such as cannabis, and it is also about commonly prescribed medications such as opioid painkillers.”
The reasons for the uptick are many.
First, boomers can afford to drink. They also think they should be able to do so.
“Those 50-plus grew up during the sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll era,” Iliff said. “They have a pro-substance mind-set.”
This age group also has easy access to prescription medications, which can be dangerously misused or mixed with alcohol, wreaking havoc on an aging body.
Physiological changes mean less muscle mass, which means decreased ability to metabolize even a drink or two like in the good old days. This is especially true for women, beginning as early as age 45, when menopause may begin.
Emotional shifts play a big role, too. Aging often means loss — of loved ones, of one’s capacity to be as physically active as one used to be, of income and purpose.
“Lack of structure can throw people over,” Iliff said, noting that she often sees people moving to Florida to follow a dream.
“But then you don’t know anyone. One woman talked about being just another person with gray hair behind a shopping cart. That former sense of purpose is gone, and that’s a huge hole. And they have time to drink.”
Successful in recovery
Mannion recounts drunk dialing, walking into a glass door, breaking a lamp. “Today, I know that was alcohol, but, at the time, I could always put it off to something else.”
Because her husband is not a drinker, she did a lot of drinking alone.
“I’m horrified, but that’s the truth,” she said. “I literally drank in my closet.”
She got her first DWI in New Mexico at 50, her third at 63 in Florida. With Mannion facing jail time, her attorney “strongly encouraged” her to get into treatment as a legal requirement. She went to Hazelden Betty Ford in Naples for seven continuous months.
“I was just terror-stricken,” she said. “I did the 30-day program seven times,” including participation in the new boomers program.
Today, Mannion speaks to that group regularly and is a grateful and mature face of recovery.
“I’m one of the miracles,” she said. “So many people didn’t make it. Car accidents, alcohol poisoning, and the obituary is silent on the cause of death. But I know.”
Of course, many people can, and do, continue to enjoy alcohol safely as they age. But it’s important, and helpful, to understand the very real risks.
For boomers such as Mannion willing to get into recovery, success rates are high, Iliff said.
They tend to do what they’re told, are open to anti-craving medications and have a lifetime of experience to draw on.
“They are much more disciplined about recovery,” Iliff said. “When you say, ‘Go to a 12-step meeting,’ they’re much more likely to follow through.”
Sometimes, the push to treatment comes out of desperation, such as when a grown child says, “No, you can’t see your grandchildren,” or “Mom, if you keep falling, you’re going to have to move out of your house.”
Iliff rejects myths about older adults, such as that drinking is their “last pleasure” and that they should be allowed to do so in excess.
Or that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
“C’mon. What 50-year-old is too old to change?” she asked.
The most effective treatment, she said, is flexible and age-specific, nonconfrontational and focused on helping the client preserve his or her dignity.
“A 50-year-old in 2010 can expect to live 30 more years,” she said. “People in recovery really do find purpose and meaning.”