Written by Dr. Jamie Huysman

From Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Jim Morrison and yes even Elvis, the rock and roll Boomer legacy of amazing musicians who went away from drug addiction and alcoholism are a constant reminder of the past; and our past. Since the beginning of time, substance abuse and addictions were always a “younger generation phenomena”.

Unfortunately, our medical world, long term care world, home health world and health insurance plans seem still stuck in this out dated school of thought. And aside from the 80% of actual health care being provided today by Family Caregivers, that includes our entire health continuum in the new millennium.

Last month, August 2010, was the 41st Anniversary of Woodstock. This amazing culture-changing event will never be forgotten in the minds of Boomers today. That probably is a good thing. What could have ever been wrong with ushering the Age of Aquarius in with open arms, love, peace and happiness?

But the question of what we also ushered in continues to plague us. Long after Yasgur’s farm was cleaned up for a new generation, we clung to the belief that all of us would be “cleaned up as well” to create a new levelheaded “show up in your life” generation of Moms, Dads and grandparents.

What we can be assured of in 2010 is that we have never shaken this drug and alcohol thing, though the denial of caregivers, seniors and long term care facilities would have us believe otherwise.

About five percent of Baby Boomers — about 4.3 million adults over age 50 — are abusing drugs and alcohol, says a report from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which examined the drug habits of almost 20,000 American adults born between 1946 and 1964. Younger Boomers, age 50 to 59, were more likely to smoke marijuana than those aged 65 and up, who were more likely to abuse prescription drugs. America is facing a “Silver Tsunami” of addiction. It may be hard for the reader to comprehend but Boomers and seniors are the fastest growing groups of addicts and alcoholics in our country.

Chemicals were culturally a part of the Boomers’ upbringing and no doubt the past is catching up with us. Today there are over 50 million caregivers of chronic illnesses. One of every two people has some type of chronic illness.

There are many challenges facing the mental health industry to tackle the issue. Professional caregivers are doing twice as much with half the resources. Primary care physicians are overworked; allied health professionals are feeling intense burnout and compassion fatigue. Their ability to be hyper vigilant with their patients or even to take enough of an active interest in their patients lives is telling. Even the CAN’s, techs and maintenance staffs of residential facilities are turning over at alarming rates because of burnout. Continuity of care is fast becoming a forgotten medical value as we work with our loved ones.

Pain Management clinics are on the rise. There is a shocking lack of coordination among doctors in terms of patient care. Long term care facilities and primary care doctors and clinics are not screening for depression and/or alcohol and drug dependence. In our healthcare system, there is an inadequate amount of reimbursement for addiction treatment, and other behavioral health challenges. Caregivers are not closely monitoring the prescriptions or drinking patterns that their loved ones are manifesting; they are too overwhelmed.

What has transpired is quite a bleak picture. Hollywood’s incessant drumbeat of quick fixes and talk, courtroom and reality shows prescriptive measures are not helping either. People are looking to be gratified by other people’s lives rather than going within and dealing with their own problems in a positive mind, body and spiritual manner.

Beyond the patient that modern medicine is missing and allowing to fall through the cracks, we are seeing a huge increase of caregivers of the chronically ill succumbing to addiction and alcoholism themselves. It is the “Woodstock generation” who are becoming these sad statistics.

They, our Boomers of today, are “self medicating” their anxiety, depression and fear.

Boomers must heal themselves, but another danger of a rising addiction rate is its burden on society. The staggering numbers that addiction costs American society pales in the face of how the caregiver population costs are impacting corporate America. When the two are combined, the emotional, medical and psychological costs are beyond devastating.

Boomers are finding opiates, benzodiazepines and other anxiety relieving substances to deal with the ongoing stress. In my private practice I am seeing the overworked caregivers of the sandwich generation slipping away, way too often to have a drink away from their perceived mayhem.

Addictions are a family disease. There is no identified patient. Everyone is impacted intergenerationally, especially future generations.

James Ross, founder of the online resource, James Inspires, for loved ones of people addicted to alcohol and drugs, agrees. “One out of three Americans are currently suffering from someone else’s substance abuse,” he contends.

Most of his subscribers are women (85 %), and nearly half are Baby Boomers (45 %), who are either dealing with their spouse’s addiction or a child or grandchild’s substance abuse. Only 15 percent of his readers are men, Ross notes.

The government study reveals that the younger generation has been less likely to use drugs while the Boomers exceed their predecessors in substance abuse. Are Boomers who are still addicted to controlled substances a product of that generation? We would like to think that this is a generational cyclic phenomenon.

My fear is that this cycle will keep getting passed on from generation to generation, whether through addictions, co-addictions, trauma and its psychological challenges or any other psychological challenge that impacts families and child-rearing.

With divorce rates at their highest and the current backdrop of economic bad times, both are incubators for greater problems that loom ahead if we continue to be complacent on these issues.

In addition to potential trauma that families of addicts face, are younger generations at greater or lesser risk of developing addictions? It is a psychological truism that people with addictions unwittingly hurt their loved ones, perhaps even more so than themselves. For the most part caregivers are left to pick up the pieces. It is also a truism that we are doomed to recreate our clinical challenges until we intervene on them.

The caregivers of our country are clearly women. The pivotal decision maker and caregiver in any family is also most likely a woman. No doubt the anxiety and self-medication are driving a disproportionate number to drink and drug, usually much more under the radar than men, who would ’crash and burn’ in a much more visible manner. Women are hiding their addictions at a much more alarming rate as well.

Drugs and drink are not the only addictions to watch out for. Other addictions are on the rise, especially in men who are technologically-driven; they include pornography and other Internet and work addictions.

If the righteous indignation that accompanied the reaction to an addict out of control was so intense, I wonder if America will muster the same passion, vitality and commitment for the newest, growing population of addicts and alcoholics in the country – Seniors – our Moms, Dads and Grandparents.

We have become a country in denial; one that would rather turn our head to Page Six then set up a plan of action for the people who raised us, gave their lives for us to live in a better place for those facing a disposable life of chronic illness.

Boomers have the right to believe that if they take their loved one to a professional or to a residential facility that the proper screening is done and that the clinician is trained to be a safe and competent evaluator.

I have traveled the country running a national foundation for caregivers and have been appalled that the shame and stigma of mental health not only permeates our society but also is pandemic in our healthcare industry. Important trainings for in-house staff are not being facilitated around identifying depression, addictions or most behavioral health challenges.

Long Term Care facilities are reticent to offer support groups or embrace anonymous programs on campus around AA, CA, NA, Al Anon or any mental health support groups. It is as if nobody got the memo that Washington DC has now legislatively enacted parity for medical and mental health problems.

One could make the case that the reason family members have put their heads in the sand rather than dealing with the addiction explosion is they lack education, awareness and resources, But how can anyone excuse a healthcare system in such denial?

The cost of independent housing, assisted living and skilled nursing is so high, one would expect that their admissions procedures and staff would be fluent in these behavioral challenges and have the ability to assist families by being able to ask the important questions, doing the appropriate screenings and assisting in finding solutions. Healthcare reform would also be well served to understand how much of a cost savings a definitive approach to these issues would be.

Boomers have the power now. They make almost every healthcare decision for their loved ones and hopefully themselves. We need to be able to challenge the system to rise to the occasion and become our hopeful ally in dealing with addictions and the identification and monitoring of our loved ones mental health. After all, is there a Boomer out there that does not believe that the mind and the body are inextricably connected?

Sign up for future articles on Boomer & Senior addiction problems and solutions. Together we can make something happen. Feel free to send your stories as well to www.drjamie.com

Addictions cannot be out of sight; out of mind. Our Boomers and seniors can’t afford that approach and neither can we. Look for the unveiling of Caregivers in Recovery at www.intherooms.com in September. You can celebrate Recovery Awareness Month by showing up in your life, your loved ones’ life and directly asking every healthcare provider not to look the other way.

As we showed up for what we believed in the 60′s and 70′s, no matter what side of the political aisle you were on, so must we muster that same passion to show up for ourselves as Boomers who happen to be supplying most of the healthcare in this country on a daily basis!

Let’s Rock and Roll in 2010 better than we did in 1969.

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