When Retirement Leaves an Emptiness, Some Fill It With Alcohol
May 18, 2004
By BONNIE ROTHMAN MORRIS

Ed's beverage of choice was Scotch. He drank it hard for 50 years, but his drinking, he said, never interfered with his work as a securities analyst on Wall Street.

Seven years ago, Ed, who insisted that his surname not be printed, retired.

"There was nothing to do except for read and drink, and gradually the drinking took precedence over the reading," he said. "I got completely out of control."

Retirement, with its promise of the good life, can often include sipping a single malt or two. But sometimes the drastic changes that come with retirement can lead to added drinking.

"Older adults will tell us they led a very productive life," said Carol Colleran, national director of older adult services at the Hazelden Foundation and a co-author of "Aging and Addiction," published by the foundation in 2002. "Every day they made important decisions. Then they retire and play golf, and all of a sudden nobody is looking to them for major decisions or even minor ones."

Feeling useless, some retirees turn to alcohol for relief.

The number of older adults who are alcoholics is reportedly small. A national survey of drug use and health in 2002 found that 3.8 percent of people from 55 to 59, and 4.7 percent of people from 60 to 64, met the definition of heavy users of alcohol; 1.4 percent of adults 65 and older reported drinking heavily.

But for older people, even small amounts of liquor can be a problem, experts say, and alcohol misuse is more prevalent than alcoholism per se.

Studies suggest that two-thirds of older adults who are alcoholics have struggled with alcohol throughout their lives. Another third are categorized as late-onset alcoholics, people for whom alcohol abuse is new.

Retirement, depression, a divorce, a loss of physical capabilities or the loss of a spouse may propel retirees into alcoholism, experts say. Sometimes the catalyst is not so negative. For some retired people, moving to a country-club-style retirement community, where cocktails are part of many events, can also lead to heavy drinking, said Dr. Alison A. Moore, associate professor of medicine in the geriatric medicine division at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In such cases, Dr. Moore said, life may suddenly feel like a permanent vacation, with abundant leisure activity and free time. Some retirees do not have the psychological tools to negotiate these changes.

Retirees who abuse alcohol may not even realize their problem. Because they are not working, no colleagues or supervisors are at hand to notice that something is wrong. Family members may live far away. And older drinkers tend to avoid driving while drunk, so they are not arrested as often for driving under the influence.

Dr. Larry Schonfeld, a professor in the department of aging and mental health at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said retirees lacked checks and balances that could disclose their drinking as a problem and work to obtain help.

Complicating the problem, few educational campaigns about alcohol are directed toward older adults.

"There is very little education for retired people on this," said Dr. Samuel B. Bacharach, director of the Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in New York City. "There's a lot to do with pensions and finding where to live, but very little with things like alcohol."

Dr. Bacharach is conducting a longterm study of retirement and drinking that follows 1,279 retired blue-collar workers. Now in its fifth year, the study has found that periodic heavy drinking increases with retirement.

Even small amounts of alcohol can create problems for older people because as the body ages, the effects of alcohol are amplified. Medications can increase those effects.

Conversely, alcohol may diminish the effectiveness of drugs and even worsen symptoms. For example, alcohol can increase bleeding for a patient taking a blood thinner.