The story has been all over the news in recent months, with headline after headline declaring that America is in the midst of a severe epidemic of addiction to painkillers. “From wonder drug to abuse epidemic,” says CNN. “The worst drug crisis in American history,” says PBS’s Frontline. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during 2014 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), “more people died from drug overdoses…than in any year on record, and the majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involved an opioid.”
With this sobering backdrop we felt it was timely to revisit this story from 2017 on National Public Radio that warned of the danger of opioid addiction among seniors. Often the crisis is triggered when older patients find themselves hooked on prescribed painkillers after undergoing medical procedures. “As the nation grapples with a devastating opioid epidemic,” says NPR, “concerns have primarily focused on young people buying drugs on the street. But many elderly people in America also have a drug problem.”
This is important news to all seniors and their families, because senior patients generally tend to be more trusting of their physicians and less likely to ask tough questions about the dangers and side effects of prescriptions. In the words of the NPR story, “Over the past several decades, physicians have increasingly prescribed older patients medication to address chronic pain from arthritis, cancer, neurological diseases and other illnesses that become more common in later life. And sometimes those opioids hurt more than they help.” Tragically, in our observation, many seniors are given prescriptions they never should have received in the first place, and many physicians and family members don’t pay attention until it’s too late.
The NPR story cited a study of Medicare recipients in which about 15 percent of respondents had been prescribed an opioid painkiller after having been discharged from the hospital. But in a troubling finding that should be raising red flags, three months later more than 40 percent of these patients were still taking these highly addictive drugs. In the National Public Radio feature we met one such patient, a retired 70-year-old man in Arizona who underwent surgery to fix a debilitating ear problem. But after the surgery the pain got worse. His doctors prescribed Oxycontin, a common opioid, which helped at first, but over time had less and less effect. This man’s dosage went up and up. He ended up “confused, depressed, and still in pain.”
“I was effectively housebound,” he said in the NPR article. “I couldn’t play golf anymore. I couldn’t go to social events with my friends or my wife.” He began to obsess about when he could take his next dose – and when this happened he knew he was in trouble. The irony is that this patient was not an abuser: he had followed all the rules and done exactly what his doctor told him to do. He finally and reluctantly entered a rehab program where it took him a week to get over the severe flu-like symptoms that come with opioid withdrawal, symptoms that can hit seniors with particular severity.
Ironically, back in 2009 (according to NPR) the American Geriatric Society came out strongly in favor of opioids for seniors, believing that the risk of addiction among elderly patients was low. Today those guidelines are no longer in use, “but opioid medications remain a crucial tool to treat pain in older people. And most people are able to take opioids in small doses for short periods of time without a problem.” Doctors say the important thing is to try non-addictive pain solutions first, and to keep any opioid dosages to an absolute minimum. There is real urgency to this situation, says NPR, because the problem is apparently still getting worse: the rate of hospitalization related to opioid overuse among seniors has quintupled in the past two decades.
Here at AgingOptions we find this rate of over-prescription of dangerous drugs truly deplorable. It’s just one more reason why it is essential for seniors to pick the right primary care doctor – a board-certified geriatrician who understands the particular health needs and vulnerabilities of older adults. If you’ll contact our office during the business week we can provide you with a referral list of some recommended geriatric physicians in your area. This is one of the most important steps you can take toward comprehensive and age-appropriate health care planning.
When it comes to retirement planning, we also have the ideal solution: our LifePlanning Seminars. These free information-packed sessions are highly popular, and there’s a good reason why. At a LifePlanning Seminar you’ll learn not only how to plan for your health care needs but also your financial security, your legal protection, your family communication and your ideal housing choices. These components of a good plan all fit together like pieces of a puzzle – but with the AgingOptions team as your guide, the process is neither puzzling nor confusing. Having a LifePlan in place and following it is the single most important thing you can do to secure a fruitful and happy retirement.
Ready to take the next step? We’d love to invite you to come join Rajiv Nagaich at a LifePlanning Seminar soon. Click here for dates, times, locations and online registration, or contact us during the week and we’ll assist you. Get the facts you need to make a truly comprehensive retirement plan: a LifePlan from AgingOptions.
(originally reported at www.npr.org)