Opioid Abuse: Not Just a Young Person’s Problem

Not all opioid users are young. Abuse of these powerful drugs has skyrocketed among the elderly. How big is this problem? How do Life Care Planning Law Firms support families facing this issue?
When you think about an opioid addict, who comes to mind? Would you be surprised to know that more and more opioid addicts are senior citizens? Older Americans are using narcotic pain pills in surprisingly high numbers.

Consider the facts:
• Nearly 14,000 people over age 45 died from an opioid overdose in 2015 — 42 percent of all such deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
• Almost one-third of all Medicare patients — nearly 12 million people — were prescribed opioid painkillers by their physicians in 2015.
• That same year, 2.7 million Americans over age 50 abused painkillers, meaning they took them for reasons or in amounts beyond what their doctors prescribed.
• The hospitalization rate due to opioid abuse has quintupled for those 65 and older in the past two decades.
• 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.

Opioids are powerful narcotics used to control pain. Examples include oxycodone (OxyContin), oxycodone with acetaminophen (Percocet), and hydrocodone with acetaminophen (Vicodin). Most older adults who abuse these drugs do so by accident. Drug dependence often begins with a legitimate prescription from a doctor. Seniors are more likely to be prescribed opioids than any other population, and they take more medicine than other age groups.

Based on the way physicians prescribe opioids, dependence can set in quickly. “A CDC study published in early 2017 found that opiate dependency begins within a few days of initial prescription use,” said J. Barry, founder of Elder Law of Middle Tennessee, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in suburban Nashville. “The actual number of deaths is likely much higher because among older people, a death due to an opioid overdose is often attributed to something else like a heart attack, stroke, or fall.”

Because symptoms of prescription drug abuse are similar to symptoms of aging, opioid abuse can be hard to recognize in older adults. For instance, confusion and memory loss are symptoms of both. Fortunately, all the publicity around opioid abuse has alerted many family caregivers who are now paying closer attention to the medication habits of elderly loved ones in their care.

If you suspect that an elderly loved one is abusing opioids, what should you do? Barry offers the following tips:
1. Make a list of all medications your loved one is taking and call your doctor right away to share your concerns.
2. If your doctor suggests inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation, request a facility that specializes in treatment of the elderly.
3. Find a pharmacist willing to offer natural alternatives that might be safer than pharmaceuticals.
4. Encourage exercise, diet and lifestyle changes that will reduce your loved one’s need for prescription drugs. 
According to Barry, families working with a Life Care Planning Law Firm enjoy an extra layer of support. “An Elder Care Coordinator (ECC) has a lot of interaction with elderly clients,” added Barry. “The ECC is trained to look for changes in behavior that might be cause for alarm and can guide families to the most appropriate treatment resources.”

ECCs with their ability to spot opioid problems in their elderly clients, are the ideal first responders—impartial third-party professionals who can ease pressure on family caregivers, addressing these difficult problems before they become disasters.