When thinking about the age group most susceptible to alcoholism, fingers often point to college kids. Study after study has documented dangerous substance abuse patterns in the younger generations. But now that humans are living longer than ever before, scientists are only just beginning to look at how the elderly are drinking.
A recent study–one of the few of its kind–found that for some, old age could be the new college. John Clapp, associate dean for research at Ohio State University, wanted to investigate how seniors were consuming alcohol at a low-income residential senior center in San Diego, so at first he had the 45 residents fill out a survey. When he showed the results to the administrators of the center, they did everything but shake their heads.
“The administrators said, ‘We don’t think you’re giving us the whole picture,’” Clapp says. After that, they led him down to the basement, where he found recycling bins overflowing with empty beer cans and handles of cheap vodka. “It looked like what you might find in a fraternity house’s recycling bin,” Clapp adds.
That gave him an idea. If the seniors weren’t telling the whole truth on written surveys, their trash might tell it for them. Clapp and a group of collaborators at San Diego University and the Centers for Disease Control set up fake recycling bins on every floor of the senior center to see what they could net.
“We saw spikes around the same time that they received their social security checks,” Clapp says. “And we’d find almost the exact same number of empty bottles of whisky. It was probably one person or a couple of people who would get that and polish it off in a week.”
The results from the recycling bins painted a much more accurate picture of how seniors were drinking. It was so instructive, in fact, that Clapp hopes to replicate the experiment on college campuses. But he stresses that substance abuse isn’t just a young person’s disease.
“You used to literally have people tell you well there are no old drinkers,” Clapp says. “When you retire, period, that’s a risk for starting to drink more.”