Susan was noticing changes in her 71-year-old mother, Florence's behavior. She seemed withdrawn and sometimes anxious. Susan often ran errands for Florence, and after a few trips to the pharmacy, she noticed her mother had prescriptions for Percocet from several different doctors. When asked about it, Florence's answers were vague, even secretive. Further probing caused her to become confrontational.
Eventually, the full story came out. Florence had built up a tolerance to the medication and started increasing how much she was taking. Fearing that her doctor would stop prescribing the medication if she told him that she had increased the dosage, she kept it a secret. She did not believe that she would be able to function without the pills. She began visiting several different doctors, requesting the same medication. She used different pharmacies to fill the prescriptions. She began to change the numbers on the prescriptions so that she would get more pills, with more refills. Florence had become addicted to Percocet.
When you think of drug addiction, seniors are not the first age group that comes to mind. But one quarter of the prescription drugs sold in the United States are used by the elderly, often for problems such as chronic pain, insomnia, and anxiety, according to Modern Medicine.com. According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, as many as 17% of adults age 60 and over abuse prescription drugs. Narcotic pain killers, sleeping pills and tranquillizers are common medications of abuse.
When drugs come from a doctor's prescription pad, misuse is harder to identify. We assume pharmaceutical drugs are only used for treating medical conditions. But many older adults take mood-altering medications for non-medical reasons. Over time, they develop a tolerance to the drug. Achieving the same effect requires more and more of the drug.
Dr. Marvin Tark, a board certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, explains it like this: "Addiction is a genetic trait. Prescription drug addiction is no different from alcoholism or an addiction to any other substance. If there is a history of alcoholism or drug abuse, there is a higher chance that person will abuse prescription medication."
Seniors don't fit the picture in most people's heads of a drug abuser, so more often than not, the practitioner doesn't suspect that seniors have an addiction problem. This makes access to prescriptions easier for seniors. "When grandma goes to doctor with an ache or pain, she easily gets Percocet," says Tark. "15% of the population has a tendency towards addiction. Seniors have same propensity."
Taking more the prescribed dose of prescription medications, or combining them with alcohol or other drugs, can have deadly consequences. An accidental overdose leading to death can occur.
Most seniors today take a dizzying number of prescription medications. In most cases, prescription medications improve the lives of elderly people by doing everything from lowering blood pressure to easing chronic pain. So how does a caregiver know when the senior crosses that line: when the medication use stops being "medically necessary" and becomes "addiction?"
"When the person starts using the medication for non-intended purposes," says Tark. "If your parent is taking certain types of medication: narcotics, or even osteoarthritis meds, monitor their use, because they are the most commonly abused types of medicine. Addiction occurs when they use it for non-prescribed purposes, or when use goes up beyond the prescribe dosage."