Senior Opiate Addiction

An opiate is a substance that has been synthesized from the poppy plant. There are both legal and illegal varieties of opiates. Legal opiates are primarily prescribed for pain management while illegal opiates are only found on the street and not through prescribing physicians.1

Opiates go by many different names, particularly when combined with other drugs, like acetaminophen. Therefore, it is important to understand the components of pharmaceuticals so that you can recognize opiates and their related drug, opioids. Legal varieties commonly used in narcotic pain relievers include the following:

  • Morphine
  • Hydromorphone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycodone
  • Codeine

Heroin is always illegal in the US as is taking any opiate based medicine differently from or with a prescription.

The opioid crisis in America continues in escalate. Those who are addicted to narcotic pain relievers will often try heroin when they can no longer obtain prescriptions for legal medicines. Because the drugs are chemically similar, the addictions often cross over for people. The US Library of Medicine reports that 435,000 people in the US used heroin; however, 10 times that number of people used narcotic pain relievers in a non-medical or off-prescription way.2

Opiate Abuse in Seniors

Elderly woman-holding-pillsFifty percent of adults 57-85 take at least five medications or supplements on a daily basis.3 Senior adults consume medicine at a higher rate than other populations; therefore, as a demographic, they have a higher risk for addiction.

Although there may be widespread concern about the risks,opiate treatment is both widely accepted and effective for treatment of severe pain. Opiates may be prescribed to relieve pain for different conditions including the following:

  • Post-physical trauma
  • Post-surgery
  • For cancer-related pain
  • For periodical medical illnesses, such as inflammatory bowel disease or gout
  • Chronic pain that is not related to cancer (a controversial topic as of the time of the report)

Because seniors have high rates of health complications, they—more than other age groups—are prescribed narcotic pain relievers very frequently. In addition, due to the nature of opioids, it is possible to become dependent and even addicted to the drugs without misusing them.More doctors are offering prescriptions for older adults, and as a result, more older adults are misusing narcotics. In 2012, the rate of illicit drug use in the population ages 60 to 64 increased to 3.6 percent, up from 1.1 percent in 2003.4

Factors in Senior Opiate Abuse

With an aging population and the knowledge that chronic pain more often presents later in life, more seniors will continue to receive prescriptions for opiates. It is estimated that in 2017, almost half of older adults suffer from chronic pain. As a result, the expectation is that misuse of narcotic pain relievers will double in that population between 2004 and 2020.5 The problem is that opiates are very effective at treating pain, at least initially, and they can contribute to a higher quality of life. However, they are very addictive even when strictly following a prescription.

There are so many conditions, including depression,cancer, diabetes, constipation and neuropathy—and many more—that can lead to chronic pain. Because chronic pain can be all encompassing, it often affects more than just a sensation of pain. Emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses to chronic pain are all common and must be dealt with holistically. All of these factors carry over to potential opiate abuse as well.

Social and personal factors that are relevant to senior pain and opiate addiction include the following:

  • History of alcohol and/or drug abuse
  • Loneliness
  • Losses entailed in aging, such as diminished health
  • Depression, anxiety, other mental illnesses, grief, and pain

Although opiates are very commonly prescribed, there is more and more research leading doctors to encourage senior adults to pursue a more holistic approach to pain management. There are four key areas of treatment for pain recommended, including the following:

  • Pharmacotherapy – Ranging from topical treatment to over-the-counter drugs (like acetaminophen or ibuprofen) to narcotics, pharmaceuticals is often part of the treatment scheme for patients dealing with pain.
  • Psychosocial treatments – Talk therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are often effective in helping patients manage their pain. Senior adults tend to be more resistant to these type therapies, however, because of their generational patterns.
  • Physical rehabilitation –Adapting to loss of skills through physical and occupational therapy can be very helpful in dealing with pain in older adults.
  • Interventional modalities – Considering treatments like regular massages or acupuncture may seem out of the ordinary for some patients, but they have proven very helpful for many in the management of pain.6

By approaching treatment for pain in a multifaceted approach, it could help decrease the likelihood and prevalence of opioid abuse in elderly patients.

Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

If you suspect a drug abuse problem in your elderly loved one,it is important to pay attention to the warning signs and act appropriately. Signs of potential drug abuse include the following:

  • Have prescriptions for the same medication from different doctors
  • Fill prescriptions for the same medication at different pharmacies
  • Hide medication or take it in secret
  • Be defensive in response to any inquiries about drug use
  • Show a fixation to medication such as frequently talking about it
  • Take medication differently than prescribed
  • Become stressed at the prospect of being without the medication
  • Mood changes that are not characteristic of the senior’s normal temperament

Seniors, like everyone, will exhibit changes in behavior when they are suffering from addiction. Therefore family and friends who frequently interact with the senior may quickly notice these changes.

How to Get Help for Senior Prescription Addiction

If you suspect medication misuse, the following are some steps to take in getting your loved one help:

  • Remain engaged with the senior because withdrawing from the problem may cause it to escalate.
  • Take inventory of the senior’s medications, and document dosing schedules. Make sure this is delivered to a supervising physician.
  • Consult with the senior’s doctor to explore non-prescription pain treatment alternatives including psychological tests that may contribute to addiction.
  • Ensure that your loved one understands the possible negative risks of illicit drug and alcohol interaction with prescribed medications.
  • If necessary, work with your loved one to check into an addiction treatment facility that treats addiction in seniors.
  • Learn from the senior’s health insurance program about what treatment options are covered, and plan as necessary so that finances do not keep your loved one from getting the help needed.

In addition, it is important to listen to seniors who report ailments as these may be side effects of drug use or signs of drug abuse or addiction problems. Some side effects of opiates include constipation, urinary retention, nausea, severe itching (pruritus), sedation, cognitive impairment, and respiratory depression. Keeping a list of these issues will help doctors diagnose any misuse in your loved one’s life.

Help for seniors facing addiction is available, but the biggest step toward treatment is recognizing the problem and properly addressing it. At The Oaks at La Paloma,our professional recovery treatment staff works closely with seniors suffering from opiate abuse or addiction. Each client receives a tailored opiate treatment plan at our state-of-the-art facilities in a historic setting that provides the comforts of home while receiving exceptional professional care. Call our admissions coordinators today at our 24 hour, toll-free helpline for more information.

1Opiates.” National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teachers. Accessed 28 November 2017.

2Opiate and opioid withdrawal.” Medline Plus, November 7, 2017. Accessed 28 November 2017.

3Misuse of Prescription Drugs.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, August 2016. Accessed 28 November 2017.

4Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, September 2013.

5Opioid use in the older adult population.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, August 15, 2017. Accessed 28 November 2017.

6 Bradford, Evan McKenna, et al., “Pain Management in the Elderly: Treatment Considerations.” Practical Pain Management, June 15, 2015. Accessed 28 November 2017.