COVER STORY - Too Old to Get Hooked?
When it comes to opioid addiction and senior citizens, misconceptions abound.
When you think about the kind of person who becomes addicted to opioids, what comes to mind? Chances are it’s not your elderly father, the sweet old woman down the street, or your grandmother in the nursing home.
The notion that older adults can’t have problems with drug abuse is a persistent one. But it’s a myth.
Consider the statistics:
- In the past two decades, the hospitalization rate due to opioid abuse has quintupled for those 65 and older.
- 40 percent of all Americans who died from opioid overdoses in 2017 were age 45 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Nationally, one-third of Medicare Part D beneficiaries or 14.4 million people had at least one opioid prescription in 2016, with over 500,000 beneficiaries using very high amounts of the medication with the average dose far exceeding the manufacturer’s recommended amount.
- For people who died from prescription opioid overdose in 2017, overdose rates from prescription opioids significantly increased among people more than 65 years of age.
- A 2016 survey by the nonprofit National Safety Council found that 99 percent of physicians prescribe opioids beyond the dosage limit of three days recommended by the CDC.
Despite these facts, many people stubbornly cling to outdated notions about seniors and prescription drug abuse. Kit Sinyard, Director of the Sumner County Anti-Drug Coalition, shares three surprising facts that fly in the face of conventional wisdom about seniors and prescription drugs.
#1: Seniors don’t get addicted.
In 2009, the American Geriatric Society encouraged physicians to use opioids to treat moderate to severe pain in older patients, citing evidence that seniors were less susceptible to addiction. By 2012, addiction rates and the number of overdose deaths had soared, even though the American Geriatric Society eventually revised their position on opioid use. Kit noted that for many older adults, their drug dependence starts with a legitimate prescription from a doctor that may spark an addiction that was never anticipated. “After as few as five days of opioid pain reliever use, one in five opioid users runs the risk of becoming dependent and continuing to use opioids one year later,” said Kit, noting that as people age, they can become more at risk for dependence or overdoses.
#2: Seniors don’t share their pills.
When it comes to prescription medications, older adults often share their prescription drugs with others. Armed with good intentions and largely unaware of the dangers, they gladly hand over leftover pain pills and other drugs. Considering the drugs' expense, throwing away excess, out-of-date, or ineffective pills can seem like a waste. “The problem is that most seniors are unaware of the risks of prescription-sharing,” Kit said. “They don’t necessarily see how a patient’s weight, medical history, and disease profile factor into the decision to prescribe a drug. A pill that’s right for one person may create dangerous problems for another.”
#3: Seniors don’t sell their pills.
The new face of drug dealing isn’t a tattooed 20-something; it’s that of an elderly person. “More and more seniors are selling their own stash—and some are getting caught,” said Kit. “A 30 milligram dose of oxycodone can go for $30 and if you get a 90-day supply, it’s a significant amount to someone living on a fixed income.” Instead of operating like traditional drug dealers, older Americans sell their medications through a network of friends and family members, often without a good understanding of the dangers or potential legal consequences. There are few statistics to gauge the size of the problem and law enforcement officials admit there is a reluctance to prosecute people at or near retirement age for selling their relatively small cache of prescription drugs.
Strategies for Safety
What is being done to stem the rise of opioid-related problems among seniors?
Free Lock Boxes. Most of the sixty Anti-Drug Coalitions throughout Tennessee offer lock boxes where medications can be stored. “This reduces the chance that the pills can be stolen or misused, which is especially important if a person is living in a long-term care setting,” said Kit. To get your free lockbox in Sumner County, call or stop by the Sumner County Anti-Drug Coalition. Home delivery service is also available.
Biannual Drug Takeback Events. In conjunction with the Sumner County Sheriff’s office, the Sumner County Anti-Drug Coalition hosts drug takeback events every April and October where you can bring your unused, unwanted, or leftover medications to any Walgreens store for proper disposal. The next event is from 10 am – 2 pm on April 28, 2019.
Local Drop Boxes. Drop off unwanted drugs 24/7 at drop boxes at selected locations throughout Sumner County, including police departments in Portland, Westmoreland, Hendersonville, Goodlettsville, Millersville, and White House; the Sheriff’s office in Gallatin; Walgreen’s at the corner of Indian Lake Blvd. and Main St. in Hendersonville,;and Perkins Drugs on Hartsville Pike in Gallatin.
Sources: CDC.gov, SAHSHA.gov, National Safety Council
Interested in Learning More?
The August 2018 episode of Takacs McGinnis Elder Care Law Hour on Newschannel 5+ was dedicated to the subject of seniors and drug addition. If you want to learn more about this growing problem, this five-segment episode is worth the watch. Access it here.