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What Makes Seniors at Risk for Opioid Abuse?
Prescription opioids provide much-needed pain relief for people who can’t get relief from over-the-counter medications. Many pain conditions suffered by seniors are chronic and require more potent analgesics than Tylenol or aspirin. Osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, and musculoskeletal disorders are just a few health problems adults must cope with as they age. Consequently, physicians tend to more readily prescribe opioids to their senior patients to help them maintain their quality of life.
Chronic Medical Conditions
Another reason why seniors are susceptible to abusing opioids is they often have other medical problems besides pain conditions. Kidney or liver disorders will make it more difficult for their bodies to eliminate opioids. Mild dehydration, slower metabolism, and reduced muscle tone can alter the effects of opioids on the aging body. Developing an unusually rapid tolerance for opioids also puts seniors at an increased risk for opioid abuse disorder (OAD).
Social Isolation and Depression
Aging brings a lifetime of traumatic events that often leave seniors without a spouse, sibling, or child to depend on for companionship. Social isolation, trying to get by on a fixed income, and dealing with deteriorating health can significantly contribute to an older adult abusing opioids.
Signs of Opioid Abuse in Older Adults
Recognizing signs that an elderly loved one may be abusing prescription opioids is much harder than recognizing signs of opioid abuse in younger people. For example, signs of opioid abuse in seniors, such as appearing drowsy and confused, are often dismissed as “just part of getting old”. Unless you know for sure whether an older adult is taking prescription opioids, you might think the same thing if that senior seems distracted and more forgetful as time passes.
Seniors who are abusing opioids may also:
- Stop taking care of themselves (personal hygiene, changing clothes every day, etc)
- Become more irritable and argumentative with family members or home health aides
- Develop bruises on their arms and legs that they claim are due to their clumsiness (in reality, they may be stumbling into walls and bumping into furniture)
- Lose weight because they do not eat three meals a day
- Suffer from new health problems (constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dental disease)
- Visit their doctor more frequently than they did in the past
If you suspect an elderly family member or friend is abusing opioids, talking to the loved one is the best way to find out if their behavior can be attributed to opioid abuse, mental illness, or early-onset dementia.
How to Speak to Your Elderly Family Member About Opioid Addiction
Understanding why seniors develop an opioid abuse problem is essential to finding the right words that will comfort them and persuade them to get help. Never aggressively confront your loved one about their OAD. Telling them they will stop taking opioids and they will enter a treatment program “or else” may be a tactic used when dealing with a long-term, younger addict, but it is not a tactic to use with seniors.
Be calm, loving, and gentle when talking to your loved one. Tell them you care about their health and well-being and want to genuinely help them. Explain that taking more opioids than their doctor prescribes can worsen their pain condition and impair brain functioning. Don’t use words like “drug addict” or “drug habit” that are stigmatizing.
Also, keep in mind you may need to have several discussions with your loved one before you convince them to get help. This especially applies to people in their 70s and 80s who find it more difficult to process complex meanings and emotions. Continue talking with your loved one every day, if necessary, but remain patient and empathetic.
Once you think your family member is coming around to the idea of receiving treatment for their OAD, consider bringing in other members of the family for added support. Seniors who abuse opioids often think no one cares about them or that they’ve been forgotten by family members with busy lives. Hearing from grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who offer their loving support and promise to help in any way they can is often the “nudge” a senior needs to decide to get help.
To find opioid abuse treatment for seniors in your area, call your local health department or Department on Aging. They can give you helpful resources meant for addressing older adults with OAD.
Opioid abuse is not a subject many of us expect to deal with when it involves a parent, grandparent, or another elderly family member. It is also important to have a plan of action in case they are unable to care for themselves down the road. The best time to have this discussion is now. Call us today and one of our caring senior advisors will help you find the best solution possible.