Recently I was helping a young lady prepare an answer for a pageant onstage question. The question was, “What is a news story that you are following and what is your opinion on the matter?” After digging into the headlines, I landed on a topic that for me hit a little close to home. The topic…opioid addiction. I have typed this out and backspaced and stared at the words more times than I care to admit. Years ago, I went to great lengths to make sure that absolutely no one knew that opioid addiction was a subject I knew anything about. But sadly, I know all too well. Not on a personal level. But I guess observing the effects of addiction ravage your father’s body and mind are a bit personal. My Dad died in 2001 at the age of 56 years old. Now that I am 42 years old…I realize just how young he was when we lost him. His official cause of death was renal carcinoma (kidney cancer). But I know that his life was cut short due in part to the large amount of prescription pain killers he took every day. He was an addict and he knew it. We all knew it and it wreaked havoc on our lives. Opioid addiction is an epidemic that affects many different age groups and the elderly are not immune to this problem.
Agingcare.com reports that 40 percent of the prescription drugs sold in the United States are used by the elderly, often for problems such as chronic pain, insomnia, and anxiety. According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, as many as 17 percent of adults age 60 and over abuse prescription drugs. Narcotic painkillers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers are the most commonly abused medication types. When drugs come from a doctor’s prescription pad, misuse is harder to identify. We assume that pharmaceutical drugs are only used for treating legitimate medical conditions, and this is typically how seniors begin using these drugs. Doctors often prescribe older patients medications to help them cope with age-related physical and mental changes, such as depression, limited or painful mobility, and shorter, more irregular sleep cycles. Over time, seniors may develop a tolerance to a drug, so achieving the same “coping” effect requires larger and/or more frequent doses. The result is an inadvertent addiction to a specific medication.
Questions to Ask if You Suspect Prescription Misuse or Abuse
- How much are they taking? If Mom used to take one or two pills a day, but now she is taking four or six, that’s a red flag. Looking at the dosing instructions on the pill bottle or container can give you a clue whether they are abiding by the prescriber’s instructions.
- Has their behavior or mood changed? Are they argumentative, sullen, withdrawn, secretive or anxious?
- Are they giving excuses as to why they need their medication?
- Do they ever express remorse or concern about taking their medicine?
- Do they have a “purse supply” or “pocket supply” in case of an emergency?
- Have they recently changed doctors or drug stores?
- Have they received the same prescription from two or more physicians or pharmacists at approximately the same time?
- Do they become annoyed or uncomfortable when others talk about their use of medications?
- Do they ever sneak or hide their meds?
How to Help a Loved One Manage Their Prescriptions Responsibly
- Stay as connected as you can and make sure you know what medications your loved one is taking and why.
- Check that they are following the prescribed dosage(s).
- Encourage them to use painkillers and sedatives only when necessary and to taper off as soon as they can.
- Look for alternative treatments. If a senior has an ongoing problem with pain, for example, a pain management specialist may be able to suggest strategies for controlling it without drugs.
- Remind them to always avoid alcohol when taking painkillers or sedatives.
- Encourage them to bring all their medications to their doctor when they go for their annual checkups, so the physician has an up-to-date record of exactly what they are taking.
If you suspect your loved one may be misusing or abusing their medications, consult with their prescribing physician to devise a solution. It may be useful to inquire about psychological tests to check for mood or behavior disorders and research treatment facilities that specialize in programs specifically for seniors. Many insurance plans cover stays at in-patient addiction centers. It is difficult to face these problems, but the repercussions of sticking your head in the sand is worse for them and you. Addiction is not something that happens only to the addict. It affects the entire family. Don’t just try to sweep problems under the carpet.
Need help??? Get help!!
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA’s) (National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357),(also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information.