Aging and Wellness in Recovery, Part I
This is the first installment in a two-column series dealing with aging and wellness in recovery. This column focuses predominantly on threats to sobriety that we encounter as we grow older, together with suggestions for counteracting these hazards. The second column will provide a more in-depth treatment of the qualitative aspects of wellness in recovery associated with aging, together with shifts we can take in both our outlook and behavior to more fully enjoy the benefits of a wellness lifestyle in our golden years.
Threats to our sobriety as we grow older include negative aspects associated with landmark life changes, together with a variety of factors associated with physical infirmity, social isolation, and loss issues common in older people. The following is a discussion of some of the more common threats to sobriety that accompany aging.
While retirement is generally viewed as a positive event, the various transitions associated with retirement may be traumatic for many people.
These adjustments are often more difficult for males than for females. As women are more likely to have a well-rounded orientation toward life that includes a strong focus on friends and family, men often become overly focused on their careers and invest a major portion of their identity in our work.
Regardless of gender, major loss issues accompanying retirement often include a loss of structure and diminishment of social supports, together with a diminished sense of purpose and loss of status associated with our work-related role. Boredom also becomes a major issue for many people.
Taken together, the loss of focus and sense of displacement that often accompanies the transition to retirement creates a void that many people unwittingly choose to fill through overindulgence in alcohol and/or drugs. Colleran and Jay, the authors of Aging and Addiction, state that two-thirds of older alcoholics were early-onset problem drinkers, leaving a full one-third of alcoholics age fifty-five and older who are classified as late-onset alcoholics (2002). According to these authors, late onset of alcoholism is often associated with increased drinking in response to life changes and losses.
What can we do to minimize the possibility of escalating drinking and/or drug use following retirement? This topic will be covered more fully in my next column, which addresses the qualitative aspects of maximizing our enjoyment of life as we grow older.
In brief, options for remaining fully engaged with life include continuing to work after formal retirement while significantly scaling back our hours, embarking on a new career that we have always dreamed of pursuing, and embracing the opportunity to become more fully involved with our family and friends and in fulfilling volunteer activities.
Loneliness and Isolation
Far too many seniors become entrapped in loneliness and isolation as they disengage from meaningful interaction with others. This phenomenon frequently occurs in widows and widowers. In addition, the loss of lifelong friends who have passed on increases the burden while serving as a reminder of our own mortality. Even couples that have experienced many fulfilling years together may succumb to loneliness and despair after retiring to areas far removed from their families and close friends.
Often the intensity of these unanticipated pangs of loneliness precipitates a vicious cycle of withdrawal from life. When that occurs, many lapse into excessive drinking and/or drug use in a misguided effort to fill the void and ease the pain.
How do we ease this burden of loneliness and isolation? Grief counseling may be helpful, as well as turning to other supportive persons such as a minister, priest or rabbi, together with neighbors and fellow members of our chosen recovery community, if applicable. At times like these we need to force ourselves to become involved with life, even though doing so may initially appear to be both awkward and frightening. This is also a good time to shift our outlook to focusing on self-nurturance, as well as sharing our presence, gifts, and talents with those around us. Perhaps this might also be a good time to dive head-long in writing, painting or another creative hobby, return to school or even embark on a new career.
Coping with Pain
As we age we become more susceptible to ailments accompanied by physical pain. Conditions and circumstances often associated with intense pain include arthritis, back pain, gastrointestinal disorders, pain accompanying cancer, and falls and other injuries.
All too often doctors prescribe opiate-based pain medication for moderate and even mild episodes of pain. Commonly prescribed opioids include Oxycontin, Naloxone, Vicoden, and Demerol (“Pain management,” 2012). Tolerance can develop rapidly and use of prescribed opioids is often ineffectively monitored. Consequently, many patients progress to dependence and addiction, where the they compulsively seek to increase their “stash” of medication. Even older users may end up switching to heroin when their regular supply dries up, as the heroin currently flowing in from Mexico is both affordable and easy to obtain on the black market (Girion, 2015).
What needs to be done to counteract our current epidemic of addictive use of opioid pain-killers, particularly by older people? For starters, physicians need to be educated concerning appropriate prescribing and monitoring of pain medication, with particular reference to alternatives to highly addictive opioids. Viable alternatives include less intensive medications, taken in tapering doses; acupuncture; guided imagery (Miller, 1986; Peale, 1996); involving patients in a supervised regimen of therapeutic exercise and physical relaxation; and therapeutic massage.
Based on what I have read, together with my own experience, I advocate that patients suffering from intractable pain seriously consider incorporating therapeutic massage into their healing regimen. Decades ago Bonnie Pruden pioneered the therapeutic use of trigger-point myotherapy, a highly effective modality for combating pain associated with severe muscular tension (Pruden, 2011). Based on personal experience I agree with Ms. Pruden that the pain associated with intense muscular tension is often incorrectly diagnosed—and improperly treated—as a flare-up of arthritis. Fortunately growing numbers of insurers are covering judicious use of therapeutic massage rendered by licensed or certified practitioners.
The intent of this column has been to highlight common threats to our sobriety that may occur as we grow older, together with suggestions for counteracting these threats. In the second part of this column we will focus in depth on the qualitative aspects of enjoying wellness in recovery in our senior years.
Until next time—to your health!
Colleran, C., & Jay, D. (2002). Aging and addiction: Helping older adults overcome alcohol or medication dependence. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Girion, L. (2015). Sounding the alarm as prescription drug abusers turn to heroin. LA Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-heroin-20150712-story.html
Miller, E. (1986). Changing the channel on pain: Managing pain successfully [Audio CD]. Milwaukee, WI: Music Design.
“Pain management: Drug tolerance and addiction.” (2012). Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/guide/drug-tolerance-addiction
Peale, N. V. (1996). Positive imaging: The powerful way to change your life. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Pruden, B. (2011). Myotherapy: Bonnie Pruden’s guide to pain-free living. Tucson, AZ: CreateSpace.