Nearly three million older Americans are substance abusers, and this may approach six million by 2020. Alcohol abuse still predominates, but drugs are a growing problem.
Drs. Peter A. Bamberger of Tel Aviv University and Samuel B. Bacharach of Cornell University, writing in inaugural issue of the Journal of Work, Aging and Retirement, say that retirement itself does not lead to substance abuse, but that traumas attendant on retirement -- declining health, deaths of loved ones and financial pressure -- are the causes.
The comprehensive ten-year study, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was conducted by Prof. Peter A. Bamberger of TAU's Faculty of Management and Cornell University's Smithers Institute, and Prof. Samuel B. Bacharach of Cornell University. The two also co-authored Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic (Oxford University Press, 2014), a layman's summary of their many studies on the subject.
According to the study, older adults often lack the skills required to cope with the sudden vacuum produced by retirement as well as events common to later life - such as deteriorating health and the death of spouses and friends. The research also pointed to the impact of circumstances and conditions of retirement on feelings of depression, purposelessness and financial strain, which are known to lead to substance abuse.
"We found that the conditions under which people retired, whether they were pushed into it or it was something expected and planned for, had great bearing on alcohol and drug habits," said Dr. Bamberger. "The worst combination we found was among people who took early retirement from jobs they loved, because their companies were going under. Among all groups studied, this one exhibited the highest incidence of substance abuse."
The study, which sampled 1,200 blue collar workers, ages 52 to 75, found that traumas related to retirement can have a cascade effect, with one problem aggravating another until the retiree turns to substance abuse. "Financial strains and marital strains elicited problems with sleep. This in particular explained much of males' abuse of alcohol," Dr. Bamberger said.
Much can be done to prevent retirees from bottoming out, according to the study, including screening and brief interventions aimed at identifying behavioral changes that could lead to substance abuse. "Sometimes awareness alone is enough to bring about positive change," said Bamberger. "Even short phone calls or brief Internet-based feedback can be so instrumental. The other way of reversing this trend is to provide ways of coping with the stresses of retirement. Retirement groups and mentors are often able to pick up on signs of deterioration before they become a problem."
Bamberger is currently working on a new NIH-sponsored study examining the alcohol-related consequences of the college-to-work transition among younger people.