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Opioid Addiction Among Seniors

by Ash Arjan

The opioid epidemic in America has seemingly found its way into almost every demographic, afflicting people from all walks of life. Most opioid overdose death statistics focus on people under 50, but there is a silent group of people who are also faced with opioid use disorder who are older, and they are often overlooked despite rising rates of misuse. Seniors are part of a veiled opioid epidemic that’s caused by poor medical oversight, ageism, and inadequate medical screenings for addiction. Many people who are caring for their aging parents are unaware of all drugs that are being prescribed, and seniors themselves sometimes are unaware of the potential hazards that medications can pose to their health.

Stereotypically, drug misuse and experimentation is often seen as a youthful condition that eventually “catches up to them” in the long run. In entertainment and media, it’s seen as a casual part of life from adolescence to mid-life crisis. But what about those older people that are retired and fighting medical ailments? They’re being prescribed medications and are going through procedures that may call for pain management. Statistics show that a scarily high percentage of people who take an opioid painkiller, even when prescribed by a doctor, are at an increased risk of developing substance use disorder.

Seniors and Pain Management

Many people over 55 are no strangers to chronic pain, so when the new, highly addictive, and potent opioid pain relievers hit the market in the late 90s, the older generation was one of the first to be exposed to them. In 2015, nearly 12 million Medicare recipients were given prescription opioids, averaging out to be 1 in 4 seniors or 25%. Naturally, most of these prescriptions were written for legitimate health concerns in good faith as up to 76% of seniors live with chronic pain, but the possibility of addiction is still high despite the general attitude that seniors are older, therefore “more responsible” and won’t succumb to the dangers of opioids and misuse their medications. This approach causes caretakers to often overlook potential signs that elderly patients are addicted to their medications, and are more likely to give them stronger doses of these medications without scrutiny.

Much of the issue lies in the way opioid addiction screenings are held for older people, and the criteria used. For example, when screening patients, there are questions about career and work life, as well as other activities that seniors and retirees may not participate in like driving, or regular exercise. Those who are close to older people who are regularly taking opioids may also overlook symptoms of dependence, chalking up their odd behaviors, and intermittent memory loss as part of aging or illness. Therein lies the danger in dismissing potential addiction symptoms, especially when it comes to overdose. The dangerous stigma in society that leads people to believe that those with substance use disorder are a particular “type” is highly risky. People who are thriving, old, or otherwise don’t give off the vibe of Hollywood’s stereotypical representation of those with addiction often fall between the cracks by others and even their own lack of awareness as to how their drug misuse is affecting them.

Age Discrimination

Seniors deal with a unique set of issues compared to others, but a lot of them stem from age discrimination or ageism. The concept is based around society’s generally negative attitude toward growing old and the dismissiveness towards older people once they are no longer deemed useful or able-bodied in civilization. This outlook towards aging can cause people to overlook many health issues until it’s too late, including addiction. When people deal with the elderly in a medical setting, often times they are settling for the idea of long-term pain management at the risk of potential addiction because the alternative is having them suffer in pain the “final years of their lives.” It should go without saying, however, that altering the quality of life expectations for those who are older is a form of discrimination and can lead to lack of oversight as they are prescribed some very powerful medications, even Fentanyl, in some cases after surgeries or procedures.

While, logically, older people have fewer days left than young people, consideration for their medical care shouldn’t be negatively affected by that fact. Disregarding potential addiction in older people can lead down a dangerous path to even higher addiction rates for those above 55. Shedding light on senior opioid addiction is important because these people are not “too old” to seek the proper treatment to reduce their dosages and dependency on these powerful opioid medications.

Signs of Senior Addiction:

  • Increase in dosage over a short period of time
  • Going through medication much faster than prescribed
  • Taking medication ritually, rather than only when in pain
  • Sedated and confused behavior most of the day
  • Irritability and intolerance for being around others
  • Doctor shopping or receiving medications from more than one source
  • Avoiding others and reclusive behaviors
  • Withdrawal symptoms not to be confused or aligned with ongoing illness

Seniors that may be faced with substance use disorder are not without hope. While it may be difficult to come to terms with an addiction that was spurred out of a medicinal need for pain management with the use of opioids, it’s necessary to address. Because elderly often have other ailments that need to be managed, treatment for older demographics can often be highly specialized to help align with their other regularly scheduled doctor’s visits. With the use of medication-assisted treatment or MAT, seniors with substance use disorder are able to manage their symptoms with FDA-approved medication, along with counseling and other resources. Seniors are capable of successful recovery while also tending to their different medical needs and heightened awareness of senior addiction is vital in the battle against the ever-growing opioid epidemic that is afflicting people of all ages.

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