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According a to an interesting article on Forbes, one of the challenges that the baby-boomers will face as they begin entering 65+ territory is in the area of mental health.  The problems are ones we will all face as we age, no matter the generation, but the Baby-Boomers are the focus as they were the first of generation in the Modern American landscape, living a different type of life.  My interest in this article is not the statistics, which are scary, but the precursor that the author doesn’t note, namely how does one prepare for this time in life. 

Retirement Karma: Is It Going To Bite You?

by Robert Laura
Life’s a bitch, especially when it comes back to bite you. Unfortunately for the baby boomers, who have relentlessly re-invented every stage of life, they are about to get a dose of karma. There is a hidden epidemic taking place within the shadows of retirement. It’s a chilling reality that will impact boomers and their families more deeply than any economic recession or market crash. The idyllic images of retirement – from long walks on the beach, to worldwide travel, to turning personal memoirs into a best seller – are being transformed into walks down a hospital hallway, seclusion, and obituaries. It’s the dark side of retirement, where powerful forces such as addiction, mental illness, and suicide are quickly becoming the dominant factors for which boomers need to plan and prepare.

This may seem surprising, but these threats are a direct result of the path boomers blazed over the years. They were the first generation to engage in the widespread use of recreational drugs, and the first group for which a wide variety of prescription medications were readily available and accepted as treatment for nearly every alignment. Baby boomers are also at a critical stage in life where stress is mounting due to natural aging, bodily malfunctions, grief, loss and the financial strain that often stems from caring for aging parents and adult children.

Furthermore, this shadowy downside of retirement appears to be exacerbated by the fact that today’s seniors are from a generation that stressed self-reliance … a trait characterized by a reluctance to discuss financial and/or personal and health matters. This attribute, supported by research, suggests that contemporary seniors tend to blame themselves for their illnesses, don’t want to be a family burden, and worry that treatment will be too costly. Boomers today face an iceberg style future, where 90% of what really takes place in retirement lies below the surface and out of mainstream conversations and retirement planning.

The statistics are startling and reveal a dark side of retirement dominated by addiction, depression, and even suicide:

–It is expected that, by 2020, the number of retirees with alcohol and other drug problems will leap 150 per cent to 4.4 million – up from only 1.7 million in 2001.

–According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the proportion of older people treated for a combination of cocaine and alcohol abuse tripled between 1992 and 2008. For this group, cocaine abuse in 2008 was the leading cause of hospital admissions involving drugs (26.2 per cent), with abuse of prescription drugs a close second at 25.8 per cent.

–The National Institutes of Health reports that, of the 35 million Americans age 65 or older, nearly 2 million suffer from full-blown depression. Another 5 million suffer from less severe forms of this illness. Women are at a greater risk for depression because of biological factors such as hormonal changes and the stress that comes with maintaining relationships or caring for loved ones or sick children.

–Depression is the single most significant risk factor for suicide among the elderly. Sadly, many of those who commit suicide did, in fact, reach out for help — 20 per cent see a doctor only on the day they die, 40 per cent the same week and 70 per cent the same month.

–Suicide rates are highest among people over the age of 65, according to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS). That age group makes up 12.5 per cent of the population yet accounts for 15.9 per cent of all suicides. White men older than age 65 take their own life at almost triple the overall rate, and are eight times more likely to kill themselves than women in the same age group.

Are people living a fantasy life? I don’t think people are as unrealistic as the author implies.  The increase in depression and the suicidal rates being high are less a result of expectations as they are of the realities of being elderly, which is that more and more control is being lost and there are only certain means of maintaining that false sense of control, including suicide. 

As such, how are people being helped as they reach the milestone of retirement age?  Do they plan?  Do they consider the realities of life?  Consider that many Baby-boomers might still have one or both parents alive to see them retire.  Death is not something that has entered their lives in a long time.  Do faith-based institutions, synagogues, churchs, etc. discuss aging with congregants?  The shul I attend just had a Shabbat program which included two lectures on aging.  While I wasn’t there due to work obligations and thus unable to comment on the specific talk, I do believe that it is valuable to have these types of lectures as a means of reinforcing the realities of life. 
Will articles like this and lectures help?  Possibly not, as people tend to listen with one ear and deny with the other.  Time will tell as to how the baby-boomers do, but I have a feeling many will figure out a way to continue with their ideals in the face of death and aging.