In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the scope of the opioid problem among America’s senior population. Read Part 1 here. In Part 2, Elder Care Coordinator Claire Merendino explains how to tell if a loved one is abusing opioids and how family caregivers can confront the issue. For the last 3.5 years, Claire has worked as an Elder Care Coordinator at Bratton Law Group, a Life Care Planning Law Firm with offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Claire admits that substance abuse can be difficult to detect in older adults. The condition is often misdiagnosed. “Their behavior may seem odd, but you write it off to the fact that they’re getting older, their memory is going, or they’re depressed about all the losses associated with aging,” she explained. “No one wants to consider the fact that a parent or grandparent may by addicted to drugs. There’s still a stigma attached, so you blow it off—and that’s a mistake.”
It’s important to be observant, watching and listening for the signs of opioid misuse. Common markers include agitation, increased confusion, irritability, more memory problems than usual, neglecting personal hygiene, and a lack of interest in favorite activities. One of the most telling signs is an increased need for the medication “If you hear your love one saying things like, ‘I need more, it’s now working, or it hasn’t kicked in,’ they might have a problem.”
Opioid dependence can also lead to problems that may seem unrelated, such as frequent falls. “If a person keeps falling, it can be a sign that medication is being abused,” Claire noted. “Withdrawal symptoms can also cause falls.”
If you’re noticing changes, what should you do? Claire offers these tips:
- Ask questions. Claire acknowledges that this won’t always be easy, especially if your loved one is living independently. “When they come home, ask them how the appointment went,” Claire advises. “Ask for details about the medications ordered.
- Take inventory. Gather all the bottles and make a list of what they’re taking. “There might be what seems like a million pill bottles on the table,” Claire said. “They may be taking the wrong ones, taking medications that have expired, skipping doses, or doubling up on doses. It’s vital to stay in the loop.”
- Call the primary care physician. “We have a lot of chiefs and no Indians, especially if the older adult is seeing different specialists,” Claire said. “Each doctor might be prescribing a different drug and that can cause problems. The primary care provider needs to be in the loop so he or she can intervene if needed.”
- Control dosage by limiting access. Older adults may forget to take medications—or forget they took medication—and then double the dose. “If mom forgets that she already took a pill, she might be tempted to take another one,” Claire said. “One option is to take the pill bottles with you.”
Working with Life Care Planning Law Firms gives families access to the services of an elder care coordinator like Claire who supports families by listening to concerns, assessing the elder, reviewing medications, and providing resources. “There’s actually a lot of help out there for people going through this,” she said. “It’s always easier if you have a guide.”