Does the Woodstock Generation Have a Drug Problem?
Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” … hippies passing around a joint at a music festival … rock bands taking drug-fueled “trips.” That’s the stereotype of the baby boomers, and several studies from 2022 suggest that many members of the generation—people born from 1946 to 1964—have not given up illicit drug use, most particularly the use of opioid drugs.
Researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine say that although many people consider drug misuse to be a problem mostly among younger people, in fact, an increasing number of older adults are experiencing fatal opioid overdoses. “Many are baby boomers who, in their youth, were using recreational drugs and, unlike in previous generations, they’ve continued using into their older age,” said study author Prof. Lori Post. “That sort of flies in the face of our stereotypes of the older adult. We don’t think of them as recreational drug users, but it’s a growing problem.”
Post says ageism may stand in the way of seniors getting help for drug misuse. “It doesn’t fit the stereotype of being old,” she said of older drug users. “They’re invisible. We’re talking grandmas and grandpas doing drugs, and to the point of overdosing. We don’t think of them seriously. That needs to change.”
The study authors cite several reasons older adults are at risk for opioid misuse. They may self-medicate with drugs if experiencing social isolation and depression. Cognitive problems make it harder to manage medications. And as we grow older, our bodies metabolize substances more slowly, leaving us more vulnerable to overdose. Many seniors began using prescription opioids for painful health conditions—perhaps during the time when it was falsely believed these drugs wouldn’t be addictive if prescribed for “legitimate” use.
Even when older adults are taking opioids prescribed by their health care providers, overuse can damage their health, safety and relationships. A March 2022 study from University of Michigan cautioned doctors that the prescribing of opioids should be carefully considered. The research team said that “compared to patients who had not taken opioids, those who had used the medications in the year prior to their surgery consumed more opioid drugs 30 days after their surgery, had more prescriptions and more refills.” They urged surgeons and other doctors “to balance optimal pain relief with the need to prevent the oversupply of prescription opioid drugs.”
Unintentional overdose isn’t the only danger. In February 2022, the National Institutes of Health noted that while there has been an overall decline in suicide deaths by intentional overdose, the rate has increased among people aged 75 – 84. Seniors who were already misusing drugs were at higher risk.
Treatment is available and highly successful for older adults.
Fortunately, studies show that older adults are more willing to seek treatment for substance abuse than are younger people. “The baby boom generation born from 1946 to 1964 has had consistently high rates of substance use,” reported experts from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. But, they say, “as members of this generation enter older adulthood, the numbers of older adults seeking treatment for substance abuse has also increased.” The researchers note that while many younger people go into treatment under court order, most older participants are self-referring. Decreased stigma around drug rehabilitation has likely helped in this positive trend.
Treatment might include behavioral therapies, group or individual counseling, medically supervised withdrawal, and family involvement. Social support and assistance with beneficial lifestyle changes also helps older patients overcome addiction. And here’s more good news: Older adults experience the highest success rate in these programs.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Speak candidly with your doctor. Help is available.