Baby boomer Mark Mulligan enjoying a glass of red (Image: Joe Attanasio)

Baby boomers: the unlikely drug and alcohol abusers

For 59-year-old Anthony Johns, nearly every social gathering he attends includes his mates smoking weed and drinking heavily.

“Not the hard stuff, or not that I’m aware of … but it’s really common that marijuana is present at social events.

“Surprisingly, a lot of the times it’s my mates who never even really used when they were younger.”

Mr Johns, a recently retired surf shop assistant from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is one of a growing number of baby boomers who have turned to heavy alcohol and drug use later in life – or have continued with habits they picked up as young people.

Contrary to the stereotypical picture of abusers of drugs and alcohol being young, several recent studies suggest that people in their 50s and 60s are increasingly part of the problem.

(Image: Joe Attanasio)

In fact, according to the most recent drug use report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, baby boomers are one of the most at-risk groups of problem drinkers in the country.

By contrast, young people are starting to drink, smoke and experiment with drugs later in life than they did two decades ago, with the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey reporting that most adolescents in 2016 were experiencing alcohol and cigarettes for the first time at age 16, as opposed to at 14 in 1998.

So, what is driving this unexpected rise in older generations’ drug and alcohol use? Are retirees flinging caution to the winds? Are they revisiting the illicit drugs and free sex vibe of the 1960s? Are there other, more serious reasons?

Mr Johns says that, in his experience, it’s often a combination of multiple factors.

“It’s a really complex issue that deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting, in my opinion … Although I’ve never been one to use drugs or alcohol particularly heavily, I do have several close friends, my age or older, who regularly use,” he says.

“That’s the social side of it; it’s a whole other ballgame when we talk about prescription meds. I don’t really know much about that stuff, but that’s where the real dependence issues come into it.

“Sadly, at my age, I’ve lost one too many mates now from overdose or depression. That’s the real issue.”

The baby boomer generation experimented with drugs significantly more than any other generation before it, and experts believe the major societal changes that occurred during the 1960s and ’70s also had a big influence on how people behaved early in life.

(Image: Joe Attanasio)

Some believe this behaviour followed that generation over the decades, resulting in an unprecedented increase in drug use among that age group. However, others say many baby boomers have turned to prescription drugs and marijuana as a crutch, and that this a major factor.

Tracey is 63, has two grown-up children and works part-time as a real estate dealer. She is also a regular marijuana smoker.

“It’s become a daily thing for me since my kids moved out of the house – about five years ago now, my youngest left,” she says.

“I don’t consider myself to be physically addicted; it’s more of a mental thing … I don’t even really consider weed to be a proper drug, really.

“I smoke socially with my friends and I also smoke casually at home. I’m an adult, I only now have to look after myself, so I don’t think it’s a problem for me.”

Megan Leseberg, a health counsellor, says that among the over-50s whom she sees, many people have turned to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, rather than for social and recreational reasons.

“What I’ve observed is that it’s often the breakdown of marriages, the loss of a loved one, years of pushing the limits of alcohol, social isolation … or problem gambling.

“In my experience, it’s the ones who already have a problem with drinking or gambling that then turn to other substances.

“It’s troubling because, unfortunately, as we know, the older we get, the more susceptible we are to the harmful effects of these substances, not to mention the strain that can put on any existing medical or physical conditions one might have … or even if that person was to take a fall or injure themselves while intoxicated.”

Older people who struggle with substance abuse fall into three main categories.

(Graphic: Joe Attanasio, using Canva) Data from Older People’s Drug and Alcohol Report by Health NSW.

Among drug and alcohol users in the older generations, many negative physical and mental health effects have been reported. These include cardiovascular and liver disease, blood-born diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, seizures and various cancers, as well as depression, anxiety and dementia.

As the population continues to age, there have been calls to expand the role of drug organisations in tackling and responding to drug-related problems among older people.

Ms Leseberg says it’s up to government and society to address the problem and ensure it does not continue to grow.

“I’d like to see some stronger programs put in place by the government to ensure that older Australians are not put at risk of developing potentially dangerous drinking and drug habits.

“As members of society, it’s always helpful to check on our loved ones, particularly those living alone, to make sure they’re doing OK … especially around the holiday period.”

Some users, like Tracey, don’t believe they’re in any real danger of abusing substances, as long as they consume them in moderation.

“I believe it won’t be long until smoking pot is legal in Australia, anyway. It’s not like I fall down and hurt myself; I function perfectly fine.”