I love images of older people looking cool. Baby boomers' sense of entitlement about aging is liberating. They don't allow themselves to be subject to stereotypes of hanging out in a rocking chair immersed in memories of days-gone-by. Many older adults provide shining examples of how to stay young and feel young. However, a recent article in the Miami Herald by Ana Veciana-Suarez suggests that there may be cracks in the armor of this hearty and resilient group.

This fascinating article reports alarming rates of illicit drug use and binge drinking (that's right, binge drinking) among baby boomers. The problem is not just recreational and less-than-healthy stress reduction. Veciana-Suarez reports that boomers are dying from substance-related health problems: drug abuse, suicide and accidents. Motorcycle fatalities in those over 40, for example, more than tripled in a decade.

In my last post, I examined how self-destructive behaviors can paradoxically help stave off fears of illness and death. While true, changes in medical technology in the boomers' lifetime also provide confusing messages about what to expect late in life.

Modern healthcare technology has delivered previously undreamed of longevity, but without an accompanying quality of life. Organ transplants, cardiac catheterization, and even fertility treatments reinforce the belief that we can all live long lives without physical limitations.  Baby boomers--many of whose parents are alive but with debilitating illnesses--are first-hand witnesses to the failed promises of medical technology.

Baby boomers look into their own future and picture themselves in the same frightening scenario, which often causes unbearable anxiety. Although coping mechanisms such as drug and alcohol abuse may help people deny their vulnerability and make them feel younger, they are only a temporary haven. 

Boomers' parents, who were born with a life expectancy of around 50 years, are now living into their 80's and 90's.  Boomers themselves are facing similar longevity and a new end-of-life scenario, with all of the things most of us don't want to think about: long-term medical care, increased dependency on others, and for some, a humiliating quality of life.

We are now discovering that the baby boomer generation may be at particular risk for certain kinds of emotional challenges which require additional support.  Boomers know that technology is an often misleading seductress.  Managing the accompanying anxiety will be a major challenge for them, and for all of us.

About the Author

Tamara Greenberg

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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