Opioid dependence and painkiller abuse have become significant issues among people over 65 years of age. Since 2002, the number of older adults misusing opioids has doubled, according to a 2017 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Older adults commonly suffer from many painful degenerative conditions that invariably require some kind of pain management. These patients deserve adequate care and pain relief, but side effects and consequences of the indicated treatment plans have not always been adequately considered.
A Department of Health and Human Services report revealed that, of the 40 million senior citizens enrolled in Medicare Part D in 2016, one-third of them had been prescribed opioids. Moreover, a large number of those prescriptions were for more than the recommended dosage. This overprescribing is a perfect example of why opioid abuse among seniors rose to the extent it did in the last decade.
Opioid Use Disorder Poses Unique Risks for Seniors
Although opioid drugs can be safely used in short-term cases, long-term opioid prescriptions for seniors should be only initiated when other options are not available. In cases of prolonged opioid use, dependence and tolerance are more likely to develop.
Health care providers should watch for signs of opioid use disorder among this group of people. Signs of confusion or mood changes can misinterpreted as possible dementia and depression in older patients when those symptoms could actually be related to long-term opioid use.
Another concern among older individuals in particular is how they handle the realization that they have developed an opioid dependence. They often feel fear of withdrawal and shame about having a “drug problem,” both of which can keep them from getting the help they need.
Medical Detox and Addiction Treatment for the Elderly
Opioid addiction treatment for seniors can be improved by creating more forms of prevention. In the meantime, improving people’s understanding of the difference between addiction, dependence, and tolerance can be a major tool to eliminate the stigma and shame keeping people from getting treatment.
Also, with increased opioid use prevention and treatment alternatives for pain management, we can prevent a large number of seniors from falling into the addiction trap. Once a physical dependence exists, however, it can be much safer and wiser for seniors to undergo a medical detox than other treatment options, such as rehab.
Medical detoxification is suitable for seniors because the procedure involves a team of medical professionals working to manage the dreadful symptoms of withdrawal while also monitoring vitals in a hospital. Furthermore, admitting patients into a private room of a hospital not only provides a much safer and more successful opioid detox but also gives patients privacy to help them feel less fear and shame. Finally, if people are treated for opioid use disorder early on, as soon as dependence occurs, addiction issues can be prevented.
How to Address Factors Putting Seniors at Risk of Opioid Dependence
People age 50 and over have distinct physiological, emotional, and mental health needs, so they require individualized diagnosis and adequate medical care. To prevent more senior citizens from becoming victims of opioid abuse, we need to expect doctors to manage pain symptoms using a safe and effective range of options. We must also provide accessible medical detoxification for those already suffering from opioid dependence.
Additionally, we need to be sensitive to how older people characterize their drug dependence. The stigma placed on addiction issues in the drug treatment space creates a damaging negative impact of shame for those who need help. This perception of shame can be particularly difficult to get past for seniors who have no history of drug abuse but simply took an opioid prescription from their doctor and ended up developing an opioid dependence.
Although opioid use disorder is often seen as an issue affecting people in younger age groups, seniors are at great risk as well. Degenerative conditions, chronic pain, and depression due to loss of autonomy are significant factors affecting seniors that can lead to opioid abuse. With more education, prevention and effective treatment options, however, seniors can get the care they need.
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Published on March 13, 2019
Reviewed by Clare Waismann, CATC, Founder of Waismann Method® Advanced Treatment for Opiate Dependence
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