It is called the ''silver tsunami'', the wave of ageing baby boomers about to hit the health system with alcohol and drug problems.
Preliminary findings from a UNSW study at the Prince of Wales Hospital suggest almost one in five people over 60 presenting at aged care services may be substance abusers.
The study, presented at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs conference this week, found that of the 240 patients aged 60-plus who were screened, 47 were classified as substance abusers. Alcohol accounted for two-thirds of cases, with other patients testing positive for misuse of sedatives and painkillers.
One of the study's authors, Dr Adrienne Withall, said aged-care workers had observed increasing substance abuse in the past two years, as the first baby boomers reached 65. She said the postwar generation behaved very differently to those born before WWII.
''They grew up with socially accepted drinking and substance abuse, it was much more permissive,'' Dr Withall said.
''There is also increasing wealth, alcohol is less expensive, it is much more available. It is such a part of our social culture to go out and have a drink.''
The UNSW study classified heavy drinkers as men who had more than three drinks a day, and women who had more than two. Researchers found these people tended to be less satisfied with their relationships and social lives, and were more likely to feel lonely and depressed. Men were more likely to have a drinking problem than women.
A University of Melbourne study of 400 people presented at the same conference found 7 per cent of men aged over 60 were binge drinking once a week.
The emerging problem of alcohol abuse among the baby boomer generation has prompted calls for the introduction of specific drinking guidelines for older people, such as those that exist in Britain and the US.
Dr Withall said the National Health and Medical Research Council ''seem to be willing to endorse'' advising people 65 and older to limit themselves to one standard drink a day, and have two alcohol free days a week.
She said the number of those above 50 with substance abuse problems was predicted to double by 2020.
''It's the shift of the ageing population, what we call the 'silver tsunami', so a lot more volume of people could be diagnosed with this.''
Older drinkers cannot metabolise alcohol as well as young people, and are often taking medication that interferes with the body's ability to get rid of alcohol. They are at greater risk of falls, accidents, cognitive impairment and dying earlier.
But there is a severe lack of drug and alcohol services for those 65 and over. ''We expect them to be making demands on medical services in the way they haven't in the past,'' the director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Michael Farrell, said.
''It isn't an immediate problem but it is something we need to think about and plan towards.''
Dr Withall said in the same way drug and alcohol services screened for cognitive impairment, aged care services needed to start screening each patient for substance abuse.
Good relationship curbs the thirst
BABY BOOMER Ross Lamb believes his peers' personal lives influence how much they drink as they age.
''As you get older, if you're in a happy relationship, I would say naturally you do tend to slow down,'' Mr Lamb, who manages Paddington RSL, said. ''If you're not in a relationship it's a whole different ball game. You probably drink as much as you used to and you probably can't handle it as well … If you go into any pub or club, you'll see a number of guys in their 50s and 60s sitting there drinking regularly.''
Mr Lamb, 55, said it was having a family later in life (he has a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old) rather than concerns about the health effects of alcohol, that prompted him to cut his drinking.
''Like a lot of [baby boomers] I went out as a mad 18, 19-year-old and drank and did whatever we did … I tend to drink a lot less now.''