Alcoholism in retirement age; what seniors need to know

When a person is retiring, the elimination of work as a life- structuring factor often reduces psychological wellbeing. Many retirees report loss of status, professional position, identity and employment based social support. For other it also means loss of life purpose. A significant proportion (10-25%) of older workers experience difficulties in adjustment to retirement and some resort to increased sometime even harmful alcohol drinking as a mean of coping with the losses. Common reasons given are; to cheer myself up, combat loneliness, relieve tension and boredom. In addition, since retirement means more leisure time and wider social liberties it too can encourages increased consumption. Several studies found that retirement leads to increased alcohol drinking and that alcoholism can rapidly advance in this age group. Indeed alcohol is the most common substance used by older adults with estimated 17% being problem drinkers and 22% among medical inpatient or emergency room admissions. A 2009 study found that among adults aged 75-85, 27.1% of women and 48.6% of men drank beyond recommended guidelines for their age. Thus the general consensus is that retirement is a potential trigger for new or increased alcohol use disorders among older adults.

However the results are inconsistent as others studies found no change or even decreased drinking as people experience less strain,( e.g. no need for alcohol as a relief from work related stress) and reduced social ties with colleagues who encourage drinking.

The National institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the American Geriatric Society recommend no more than 7 standard drinks per week and/or 2 drinks per one occasion for adults over 65 years old. The reason for what might seem as low recommended number of drinks is that even small quantities of alcohol can have a significant impact on the health and functioning of older adults; as we age we metabolize alcohol differently so we become more sensitive to its effects and the same amount we used to drink when we were younger is going to cause more intoxication. More than the above recommended guidelines is considered at risk drinking, which might cause relationship difficulties or health complications like hypertension, damage to the heart and liver, and being more prone to accidents.

There a few terms one needs to be aware of when it comes to alcohol disorders;

  • Alcohol Misuse – drinking to the point of drunkenness.
  • Binge Drinking- periodic heavy drinking – for older adults it means more than 4 drinks for men and 3 for women.
  • Alcohol abuse – drinking in spite of adverse effect on physical or mental health, social interaction, on ability to meet commitments and obligations or daily functioning. It is defined by consequences not amount.
  • Alcohol dependence means craving for alcohol, or impaired control, or withdrawal symptoms or physical tolerance (i.e. needing increased amounts)Often individuals deny that they have an alcohol difficulty because only dependence is considered by them as a problem; so if they can stop drinking for a certain time period e.g. 2 months, they are convinced mistakenly that they don’t have an alcohol related problem not realizing that binge or abuse or even misuse is considered a disorder and health risk.

Since research studies about the relationship of alcoholism and retirement reported conflicting results as mentioned above ( I can’t explain here the reasons for that,) I find that it is more useful to look at what aspects of the retirement process influence increased drinking behavior.

Alcohol consumption in retirement is impacted by several factors;

  1. Reason for retiring; was it a voluntary one or was it involuntary “forced” retirement due to health issues or organization pressure. Forced retirement by the organization or other external reasons (spouse illness. The latter is more likely to be related to increase drinking as the individuals didn’t have time to plan for it and didn’t want it. Likewise, voluntary retirement due to one’s own health issues was also associated with increased consumption. However, voluntary retirement for non health ,but for internal reasons (e.g. want to retire so can travel more or spend more time with grand kids) was not associated with increased alcohol consumption.
  2. Social network; in some occupations there is heavy drinking culture making employees and retirees alike to be heavy or problematic drinkers. Also one social network of friends after retirement has an impact too. If your new social network has higher drinking norms than your prior ones, be careful.
  3. Work involvement, satisfaction and stress; leaving stressful work environments might result in less alcohol consumption after retirement while those leaving work that was rewarding, that they were very involved and/ or satisfied with, may lead to higher levels of alcohol after retirement.
  4. Age at retirement; Alcohol abuse is likely to be more severe among those who retire at a relatively young age 40-50 and among those who continue to work despite being eligible to retire. The study on this topic suggests that there seems to be an optimal time to retire from the individual perspective; workers who retire early or later than their optimal time, are likely to drink more as a way of coping with stressors in their life – e.g. retiring early due to health issues, or remaining employed due to financial reasons or among manual workers with advance age coping with the physical difficulty/pain they experience in their continued employment.
  5. Financial stress due to less available income in retirement.
  6. Marital problems; As we know 2/3 of retirees experience increased marital conflicts and lowered marital satisfaction in the first 2 years of retirement. (See the book “A Couples’ guide to happy retirement “). These difficulties might also trigger or aggravate alcohol misuse.
    In summary, retirement per se does not drives the relationship with alcohol abuse, but conditions that underlie the decision to retire and experiences before and after retirement are more important here. Older employees should be helped and prepared before they retire, for the stresses and losses that are likely to accompany retirement. The planning for and preparation to should take into account the individual perspective as well as the strains that retirement is likely to put on their marriages and changes that are likely to occur in their relationship with other close family members and friends . They also would benefit from strengthening the skills they will need to better cope with these stressors so that their adjustment to retirement would be easy and retirement won’t be a trigger for alcohol abuse.