Seniors and Prescription Drug Addiction


Susan was noticing changes in her 71-year-old mother, Florence. She seemed withdrawn and sometimes anxious.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, and using different pharmacies to fill the prescriptions. She began to change the numbers on the prescriptions so that she could 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. However, 40 percent 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 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 a person has a history of alcoholism or substance abuse, there is a higher chance that they will abuse prescription medication."

Seniors do not fit the picture in most people's heads of a drug abuser, so more often than not, practitioners and family members do not suspect that seniors have a problem. This makes access to prescriptions even easier for seniors. "When grandma goes to the doctor with an ache or pain, she easily gets Percocet," says Tark. "Fifteen percent of the population has a tendency towards addiction. Seniors have same propensity."

Taking more then 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, these drugs improve their lives by doing everything from lowering blood pressure to easing chronic pain. So how does a caregiver know when their loved one crosses that line? When does the medication use stop being medically necessary and transform into an addiction?

Tarks answer: "When the person starts using the medication for non-intended purposes. If your parent is taking certain types of medication like narcotics, or even osteoarthritis meds, monitor their use. These are the most commonly abused types of medicine."

Signs of Prescription Addiction Among the Elderly

  • How much are they taking? If they used to take one or two a day, and now they are taking four or six, that's a red flag. Looking at the dosing instructions on the pill bottle or container can also give you a clue whether or not they are abiding by the prescibed amounts.
  • Has their behavior or mood changed? Are they argumentative, sullen, withdrawn, secretive or anxious?
  • Are they giving excuses as to why they need their medication?
  • Do they ever express remorse or concern about taking their medicine?
  • Do they have a "purse or pocket supply" in case of emergency?
  • Have they ever been treated by a physician or hospital for substance abuse?
  • Have they recently changed doctors or drug stores?
  • Have they received the same prescription from two or more physicians or pharmacists at approximately the same time?
  • Do they become annoyed or uncomfortable when others talk about their use of medications?
  • Do they ever sneak or hide their meds?

How to Get Help for Prescription Addiction

  • Stay as connected as you can and make sure you know what medications your they are taking and why.
  • Check that they are following the prescribed dosage.
  • Encourage them to use painkillers and sedatives only when absolutely necessary and to taper off as soon as they can.
  • Control access to their medications.
  • Look for alternatives. If a senior has an ongoing problem with pain, for example, a pain management specialist may be able to suggest strategies for controlling it without drugs.
  • Remind them to always avoid alcohol when taking painkillers or sedatives.
  • Encourage them to bring all their medications to their doctor when they go for their annual checkups, so the physician has an up-to-date record of exactly what they are taking.
  • If you suspect addiction, consult with their prescribing physician.
  • Ask medical professionals about psychological tests to check for mood or behavior disorders.
  • Check into treatment facilities that treat addiction. Ask about programs specifically for seniors. Many insurance plans cover stays at in-patient addiction programs.
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I am in disagreement with most of the authors thoughts on why some seniors build up reserves of pain pills. The new regulations are exactly why many seniors build reserves of pain medication and not because they are addicts. I am 77 years old and have had many diagnosed back problems diagnosed since my mid 40's. Initially I was prescribed anti- inflammatory medicine which was wonderful as it allowed me to continue jogging, playing golf and going to the gym as well as running my business.
After 10 years it was discovered that I had lost 30% of my kidney functioning due to the medication that I had been described. Since then every doctor that I went to described mixtures of pain medication. I have always taken less medication than what was described. Basically, I am not an addictive personality and also, I don't like the feeling of being woozy and disconnected. This is my story until the DEA passed the new regulations. What is happening as a result of the regulations will end up with more problems than it will ever solve. In New York, patient must get their prescriptions refilled by their doctor in person every 30 days. These days the doctors' office are filled with elderly people with walkers, wheel chairs and their personal attendants. Most of them get their by taxi, at considerable expense, and have to wait 1-2 hours. Imagine, this is now going on as a result of the DEA. It seems that there was not any more thought put into this than the sign-up to the Health Care Bill. I live in Florida 7-8 months and had my prescriptions filled by my family physician there for many years. The medications were prescribed by pain medication doctors in NY based on MRI's and Cat Scans. Last week I went to my doctor in Florida and got refills to drop off at the pharmacy. You see, my wife and I are going on a trip next week and will be gone for 3 weeks. Today I was informed that are not allowed to fill them. I must now find a pain medication doctor and who will need to do an MRI and maybe a CAT- SCAN and hopefully get the prescriptions before my existing pills run out in 3 days. For people who have never had a pain level of 9-10, I can tell you that the country will end up with more suicides due to unrelenting pain than overdoses. I am speaking about the elderly, not youngsters who take drugs to get high. The regulations should have been written to address a real problem which exists among younger people.
I am sorry but I am going to be the person who disagrees with this. First, this is their golden years, doctors should cure their pain freely and not make them feel like addiction is a problem for them. I do not care if they are getting on their medications. I really do not. THIS IS THE END OF THEIR LIFE, LET THEM BE HOPPED UP ON ANYTHING THEY WANT! Why do we not have respect for those who are at the end of their lives? IF they choose an addiction at the end of life, let them have it. Period. It is not going to 'ruin their life', has anyone considered that? The fact that anyone who is elderly had to go to different doctors is a disgrace. If an elderly patient is in pain or just utilizing these drugs to get high, who are ANY of us to judge? LET THEM HAVE IT! It is their choice, they know better than ALL of us the dangers. IF they ask for help with an addiction, THEN and ONLY THEN should we jump on the addiction band wagon for them! Doctors should be addressing the addiction we have going on in our schools to the garbage they are peddling!!! That problem is the one we all should be concerned with! Now they are putting kids on Suboxone! They have simply taken clean kids, addicted them to opiates, and then made them into (many times) LIFE LONG CUSTOMERS OF DRUGS! Enough of this crap! Let our seniors die with dignity and happiness. Who cares if they choose medications to do so... it is NOT going to ruin their life and often the medications they are offering to 'CURE' this addiction are WORSE than the actual drugs they are taking. HAVE ANY OF YOU seen the lists that come with the psychiatric drugs?? DEATH, DIARRHEA, ANAL LEAKAGE, KIDNEY, LUNG, HEART, and LIVER FAILURE! Until they get medications that will adequately deal with this problem: LEAVE OUR SENIORS ALONE!
i agree with you billie . my mom was addicted to opiated possibly for 50 yrs . near her end of life the first hospice nurse considered the access to the drugs as a travesty . the next nurse had an opinion more similar to yours .
the b*tch about it all is ; the drugs end up causing you pain that wouldnt otherwise exist . i just proved it to myself yet again . my helper started giving me vicodin because my back was achy . in about one week my back just got progressively ' achier ' and the pills seemed necessary every day . im an old druggie , kinda slow in the head but capable of learning . i could see that the drugs were skewing my brain chemistry and just flat started turning them down each morning . i do have lumbar wear and tear issues but when i stopped accepting the pills my back started feeling better each day . its so dam easy to fall into that trap .
i hope modern medicine can start producing meds that enhance our own brain chemistry as opposed to interfering with it . i feel the same way about recreational drug use -- safer rec drugs are badly needed but were still not there yet . were still stuck on making drugs harder to get and in doing so driving hoardes of people to more extreme measures of procurement and even more convoluted street drugs .