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Age-Old Problem

More middle-aged and elderly Americans are addicted to substances, especially alcohol.

As the 20-year-old president of a print shop with 13 employees, “liquid lunches” became part of David T. Martin’s daily routine while he met potential customers in restaurants and bars. During evenings, Martin often went out drinking with his pals after participating in sports leagues.

“It progressively grew worse, but I didn’t see the warning signs that my drinking was out of control,” Martin says. “I figured I deserved to drink because of the long hours I worked.”

The consumption began to catch up with Martin at 42, when he suffered the first of three seizures in a year. He went on to lose multiple jobs, enter a dozen alcohol rehabilitation programs, and spend 14 months in jail.

“Some of the seizures nearly killed me, but I still didn’t stop drinking,” Martin recalls. The trauma proved to be too much for Martin’s wife, who divorced him seven years ago after 33 years of marriage.

“I made too many broken promises,” says Martin, now 61.  

But Martin made good on a vow when he completed a 10-month Teen Challenge program in 2012. He has been sober for more than four years.

Martin’s story isn’t unusual. Increasingly, middle-aged and even elderly Americans are struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Some have carried dependencies from youth; others have reignited long-forgotten compulsions because of a traumatic event, such as the death of a spouse.

Joseph S. Batluck Sr., president of Teen Challenge International, U.S.A., notes that 17 percent of Americans age 60 and above have a substance abuse addiction, primarily to alcohol. The rate has spiked in the past two decades, in part because of misuse of pharmaceuticals.

“Loneliness and depression are huge motivators behind elderly alcoholism,” says Batluck. “Those who experienced drugs and alcohol at a younger age may have walked away from it, but now they are finding a sense of satisfaction in it again.”

Batluck, 64, says only one in four alcoholics is homeless. An equal ratio are white-collar professionals. Some of those who became hooked initially started taking medications for pain relief after an injury.

“The potency and availability of powerful drugs has led to more abuse,” Batluck says. “Age isn’t necessarily a deterrent to addiction.” In fact, the average Teen Challenge student is 37 years old. There are more enrollees in their 40s and 50s than teens and 20s. Other factors swelling the ranks of older abusers is the sheer number of baby boomers who are near or past retirement age, and increased life expectancy.

Joel Jakubowski, chief clinical officer for the Teen Challenge Training Center in Rehrersburg, Pennsylvania, says seeking treatment sometimes is more problematic for older residents.

“When they began to experiment with alcohol it was more acceptable and even celebrated in society,” Jakubowski says. “It was in every magazine, in every social setting. And it’s still available, accessible, and acceptable.”

Prescription drugs, whether to relieve back, hip, or joint discomfort, dental work, or broken bones, likewise can trigger addictions. According to research published in November’s Journal of the American Medical Association, the biggest increases in drug use this century is among those ages 40 to 64 and those 65 and older. And the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that while people 65 years of age and older comprise 13 percent of the population, they account for almost 30 percent of all medications prescribed in the U.S.

“The opioid pain meds are the most effective in treating pain,” says Jakubowski, 49. “Unfortunately they are the most addictive.”

Older people are more susceptible to quicker addiction because as the body ages, the tolerance for alcohol and drugs decreases.

“The body of an older person doesn’t metabolize drugs and alcohol the way a younger person would,” Jakubowski says. “They may experience intoxication with lower doses.”

Martin is glad he finally got the message.

“I spent a long time thinking I could compromise here and there,” Martin says. “It just didn’t work. Now I know I just don’t need a drink anymore.”

After graduating from Teen Challenge, a program of AG U.S. Missions, Martin has progressed to an intern, apprentice, and now journeyman in the mail room print shop. He says he has a good relationship with his three children and his ex-wife. He realizes his addictive behavior caused the marital breakup.

“She didn’t want to come home one day and see me dead on the floor from drinking.”

According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, alcohol use resulted in 29,001 deaths (excluding vehicular accidents and murder) and opioid-based prescription painkillers led to 16,235 direct deaths in 2013.

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.