When we think of substance abuse and overdoses, elderly persons are not the first age group that come to mind. However, they are at a significantly higher risk because of specific issues suffered due to their advanced age. Aside from these risk factors, there are other aspects to consider regarding opiate use by senior citizens.
“As a society, we don’t typically think of persons in the grandparent generation as having opioid use disorder,” says Dr. Anita Everett, chief medical officer for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Dr. Everett goes on to say the problem is likely more acute in the rural and poor, who “often are in situations wherein they have fewer resources, less alternative treatments and may not know about the chances of becoming addicted to a prescription medication.”
On top of everything, those adults we look to for answers and guidance from their experienced years may be embarrassed in the face of the stigma surrounding substance use disorders and thus be unwilling to raise questions themselves. They were raised in an era where opioids were common prescriptions and no one thought of addiction being possible so long as the doctor’s orders were followed. In fact, many also remember when Coca-Cola had actual cocaine in it.
Easily Misinterpreted Signs
There are many signs of an opioid addiction that can easily be dismissed by even those closest to a senior suffering from a physical dependence. Things like confusion, being tired, and forgetfulness can all-too-easily written off as being simply due to age. Forgetting if an opioid was taken or not could lead to serious consequences, should respiratory distress occur or an accidental overdose happen.
Other signs can be misdiagnosed or ignored because they present themselves akin to other possibly-pre-existing conditions such as depression or dementia. Unexplained recurrent pain can be overlooked as a side effect of aging and not explored as a possible signal of dependency or withdrawal.
Time to Take Addiction Seriously
If you are aware of a loved one’s prescription for opioid pain medication, there are some signs you can watch for to keep an eye on potential dependency or addiction. Being aware instead of just dismissing these signals can mean the difference between life and death for your elderly loved one.
Be watchful for:
- Memory problems
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Lack of interest in favorite activities
- “Needing” medication to relieve pain
- Withdrawal symptoms after stopping use
When you notice someone you love not “being themselves” or watching the clock anxiously waiting for the next time they can take a pill, those are red flags of a physical dependency that is evolving into an opioid addiction. When they are nearly-obsessed with having enough of their medication, it’s gone from “just to be prepared/safe” to a problem developing.
Bear in mind that when they feel horrible after not taking a pill for a longer time than usual and the feelings subside after taking their opioid, there is a likely chance the opioid is filling the void in an addiction by effectively halting the symptoms of withdrawal.
Getting the Necessary Help
The most important (and most difficult) part of realizing a loved one is suffering from an opioid use disorder is helping them see the problem and convincing them to seek help. This is a generation that was taught to trust their doctors and the medications they are prescribed.
Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and difficult to endure, including flu-like symptoms such as sweating, chills, and stomach upset. Detoxification is best left to professionals who are trained in ways to help senior citizens lessen their opioid dependence and overcome their symptoms of withdrawal.
If you need help broaching the subject with your loved one or would like guidance through the intervention process, there are a variety of avenues to explore. Most importantly, find an inpatient treatment center where your elderly loved one can be given medical care around-the clock as well as therapy and counseling to help them through the recovery process with dignity and respect.