In a recent article published in Quartz Magazine, entitled “Binge Drinking Among Seniors is on the Rise,” the author points out an alarming reality: “The total number of adults over 65 (who binge drink) in the US has ballooned, jumping from 36.6 million in 2005 to 49.2 million in 2016. Scaling up the survey results, that means about 3 million older American binge drank in 2005, compared to more than 5 million by 2016.”

What they were not able to determine definitively were the reasons why this uptick in drinking occurred.

I have been a social worker/therapist/addiction counselor for a combined 40 years and, prior to that, was an educator in the field of substance abuse prevention. I have worked with clients of all ages. Here’s what I have learned: When I have seen those on the other side of 60, the dynamics of addiction change.

In general, I see addiction as the proverbial “hole in the soul.” Something feels like it is missing. Trauma feeds it. Family history feeds it. In those cases, imbibing, often to an extreme, is a means of temporarily quelling emotional pain that is part of the burden that is too much to bear at times. 

For some elders, what fuels substance abuse is that roles shift. Women, in particular, are no longer in the same type of caregiver position they might have held.

For some elders, what fuels substance abuse is that roles shift. Women, in particular, are no longer in the same type of caregiver position they might have held. Children may have moved away, gone to college, or married. Men in retirement may experience depression. For both, there is a sense of missing a purpose, which contributes to depression. Being widowed, divorced, and/or empty nesters may carry with it isolation. Their social circles may have become smaller. They are experiencing a loss of friends through death. Add to it perhaps the generational habit of alcohol being part of any social/family gatherings and you have the perfect storm. For some seniors, their bar buddies become family of choice.

Social anxiety, as the article mentioned, is also a component and, when in a group setting, inhibitions diminish and they may not recognize how much they have actually imbibed. Some have said that they thought they could control their drinking until they realized that it controlled them. They sometimes used alcohol to self-medicate away the depression, anxiety, fear, and boredom of old age. 

I have also heard from those in my practice over the years (partly spent in an outpatient substance abuse treatment program, partly on an inpatient co-occurring disorders unit) that they can’t imagine life without alcohol. One person said that camping, sporting events, parties, dinner, and picnics were alcohol-fueled, so they couldn’t conceive of doing any of those things sober. Many started drinking at an early age and developed a tolerance so it took more to get them intoxicated, which also meant that they would push themselves past the point of pleasure into pain.

How two women got sober at a later age

On the condition of anonymity, a woman shared with me that, upon retiring from a long-term career, following a contentious divorce, and estrangement from her adult children who aligned with their father, she felt she was adrift and alcohol became her anchor. What she hadn’t realized was that she also nearly drowned in it. She would down a bottle of wine in a few hours and then, after a guilt and shame bout, she would swear never to do it again; until she did, a day or so later and the cycle would continue. 

This was a primarily solitary activity. Her friends who also drank didn’t see this behavior, since when she was with them she rarely had more than a glass or two, so they assured her that she wasn’t suffering from alcohol abuse disorder. It went on for several years until AA and solid therapeutic work brought her into recovery. To this day, now in her late 60s, she remains sober.

In this country of ageism, older women especially do not have the respect or care that is essential to the human condition. The U.S. is a terrible country in which to grow old, unless one has money.

Meanwhile, Dr. Yvonne Kaye, an 85-year-old psychotherapist, writer, speaker and interfaith minister who is 48 years sober, has a different story.

“I used alcohol as a means to stay in my marriage,” she says. “My husband’s addiction was women and he was an absentee father, so my drinking buddy would visit after the children were in bed and we would drink. She lived within walking distance and my husband kept me well supplied so he knew where I was.”

“Finally, I decided enough was enough when I came to this country from England,” she continues. “Actually, it was taken out of my hands as I had four small children and no car. Couldn’t get a supply. I stopped smoking the same day, too.”

Donning her professional hat, she points out, “Mostly binge drinking, like compulsive gambling, is caused by loneliness. Many retired women, after they receive their check, will go to the casino where it is bright and noisy, mostly sitting at a slot machine with their drinks. It is a disease without a doubt and is triggered by being bored, too much time on their hands, and a belief that it is beyond their control. They also believe they are not hurting anyone, and it is legal. Feeling unloved is a part of this situation but only part. In this country of ageism, older women especially do not have the respect or care that is essential to the human condition. The U.S. is a terrible country in which to grow old, unless one has money. With binge drinking, people can justify it is ‘only now and then’. Or they are functional alcoholics.”

What can we do to reverse the trend?

Lack of connection is a key component of addiction. When people feel like they matter, that they have a purpose and are needed, they are more likely to thrive and less likely to turn to substances as a means of companionship. Some older folks have expressed that they feel as if the bottle is the only friend they have but this apparent reality can be fixed. 

Volunteering and being a surrogate grandparent or mentor will put them in a position to be of service, using the skills they have accumulated throughout their lives. It can also provide a social outlet. Learning to love the person in the mirror is an important endeavor since people who have compassion and good self-care skills are less likely to indulge in self-harming behaviors such as binge drinking. 

Finally, taking time for reflection, meditation, journaling, and (if they have a spiritual practice) prayer can be good tools that feed their recovery rather than their substance abuse.