Alcohol and the Retiree

~ By Robin Avery ~

The focus of this column is alcohol, and the retiree’s risk of alcohol abuse. Baby Boomers have abused more legal and illegal consciousness altering substances than any previous generation, the facts speak for themselves. We’ll save for another discussion the historical uses of the top five illegal drugs (in order of consumption- marijuana, amphetamines, opiates (including heroin), ecstasy and cocaine). Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine remain the most consumed legal drugs worldwide.

In 1945, the year the first Baby Boomer was born, Americans drank 94 million gallons of wine. In 1966, when the first Baby Boomer turned 21, Americans doubled consumption to 191 million gallons. We’ve never looked back. In 2012, Americans consumed 856 million gallons of wine. I’m not saying this is all bad; indeed, globally, The Vatican ranks first in per capita wine consumption (Religion News Service – February 24, 2014).

The history of health and social problems associated with alcohol is long and storied. The Code of Hammurabi (1700 BC) dealt with alcohol issues (in a rather harsh way), stating that, “If a female seller of datewine…( cheats a customer)… then the wine-seller shall be prosecuted and thrown into the water. If rebels meet in the house of a wine-seller and she does not seize them and take them to the palace, that wine-seller shall be slain (Paragraph 109). If a priestess who has not remained in the convent shall open a wine-shop, or enter a wine-shop for drink, that woman shall be burned (Paragraph 110).

In the fifth century BC, Plato outlined what he considered to be correct behavior in relation to alcohol. He forbade wine to those under 18, authorized its use on condition that it was in moderation to those under 30, and placed no limits on those older than 40. The Aztecs had a similar attitude, punishing drunkenness among the young, but authorizing it in the old.

The great 10th century Persian doctor Muhammad Rhazes, known as the doctor’s doctor, and the father of pediatrics and ophthalmology, stated that “Great damage is done by wine when it is abused and used regularly to get drunk. Delirium, hemiplegia, paralysis of the voice, croup, sudden death, acute illness, pains in the ligaments, as well as other illnesses that would take too long to list attack the heavy drinker.”

In 1596, Barthélemy de Laffumas, an adviser to Henri IV, denounced drinking that “all too often ruins homes and families.” The Greek monk Agapios, in a work published in 1647, stated that excessive drinking was harmful to the brain and nerves, and was at the root of numerous maladies such as paralysis, apoplexy, convulsions and trembling. A medical thesis in 1667 asked the question: “Does wine shorten our lives and harm our health?” Although the author begins by listing the points in favor of wine, he answers the question in the affirmative and describes the damage done by excessive drinking: “shaking hands, loss of memory, ulcerated eyes, thirst, disturbed sleep, jerky gait, sluggishness, gaping expression.” You get the idea.

The media is replete with stories of Baby Boomer drug abuse, binge drinking and how aging baby boomers put themselves at higher risk by abusing alcohol. Alcohol can make existing health conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes significantly more deadly and can increase the risk of strokes and dementia. Common prescription medications warn about side effects when they are mixed with alcohol, and the elderly run higher risk of falls and broken hips when drinking.

There are, of course, many types of drinkers: the occasional beer drinker, the infrequent wine drinker, the nightly wine drinker, the nightly hard liquor drinker. The purpose of this column is to address the retiree drinker. The numbers of Baby Boomers entering retirement are significant. The troubling trend is that more and more retirees are turning to alcohol to selfmedicate, with the risk of incurring all of the debilitating health problems mentioned above.

As much as we all look forward to leaving the workforce, the transition can be daunting. One way baby boomers can ease the transition of leaving the workforce is to have a good plan. Most people don’t have a well thought out plan that addresses their whole self. The focus too often stops with health and financial issues. It’s also important to plan ways to maintain and increase relationships with people, your family, your friends, and your spiritual side; or, developing more interests, whether it’s a part time job or jobs, joining a local Bridge club, or volunteering at the local hospital or church. I know people who volunteer tutoring, at museums, on financial boards of nonprofit organizations, and serve as business mentors for young entrepreneurs.

Retirement can be described as shifting from outward focus (career and job related) to inward focus—what’s going on at home, with your spouse, and inside you. Being retired is about figuring out your own day, thinking about what motivates and what matters to you.

Retirement can be a very individual process, and it helps when building your retirement plan to think about it as your own, and be thorough. It can also be a family project. Financial and health issues are a natural part of almost every family, and family members should discuss frankly what the future might hold, and plan inter-generationally. Alcohol, consumed socially and in moderation, can be part of that plan.

Is this country ready for healthy, successful, fun-loving and serious minded old men and old women? Or, will tomorrow be Boomsday, as unhealthy retirees overwhelm an already fragile health care system? How we Baby Boomers handle our liquor will make part of the difference. Aging, to be fully appreciated, should be a sobering and sober experience.

Robin Avery is a Gerontologist, Consultant, Developer and Operator of assisted living communities, with a Master Degree from The Naropa University. He can be reached at

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