Generally considered to be the wise and mature around us, a surprising group is contributing to the opioid epidemic — the elderly.
In 2003, a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration study predicted the number of senior adults that would need addiction treatment by 2020 would almost triple, going from 1.7 million in 2000 to 4.4 million in 2020. While part of the increase, the study suggested, could be attributed to the aging baby boom cohort, the majority of the rise would be related to increasing opioid abuse among the elderly.
The findings are coming to fruition. A study published in the July, 2016 edition of the Journal of American Medicine showed that across 2,512 hospitals, 15 percent of elderly patients were prescribed opioids before release, and 43 percent of them were still taking the painkillers three months later. A study presented at the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry’s 23rd annual meeting revealed that approximately 20 percent of senior adults take painkillers, a number that continues to grow, and 18 percent are addicted to them. Almost 1 million elderly patients were admitted to hospitals last year with opioid overdoses, a number that has increased five-fold over the last two decades.
That’s what they’re for, right?
The problem for older adults is that their pain is genuine. That older adults will increasingly experience chronic pain as they age is commonly understood, and many seek relief from it using medication. Unlike other pain-relieving drugs, such as ibuprofen, which can lead to bleeding, opioids do little besides relieve pain.
Apart from acupuncture or holistic medicine, there are very few alternatives and arguably none as effective as those derived from the opium poppy.
Further complicating matters, at least for providers, is that many of the addiction signs mirror symptoms of old age, making opioid abuse more difficult to identify in the older population. Forgetfullness, confusion, changes in vision, and financial problems are just a few of the symptoms that could be attributed to either aging or drug problems.
In addition, the plethora of other health problems experienced by the elderly necessitates frequent doctor visits and possibly doctor shopping, one of the clearest signs of opioid abuse in younger people.
Grandma’s doing what?
For senior adults living on a fixed income, finding extra money can be difficult. It’s a fact — a weakness — on which drug dealers rely, and one they prey upon.
In his work as narcotics investigator for the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, Richard Allen has seen things in recent years he never thought he’d see.
“We just arrested someone not too long ago, a 75-year-old, for dealing drugs,” Allen commented. “She was having trouble paying her light bill and started selling her pills to make money.”
The example is congruent to what’s being seen around the country. While no statistics exist yet by which to gauge the extent of the problem, arrest records attest to its existence. In January, a Tennessee 74-year-old female was arrested for dealing drugs after she was found with 100 oxycodone pills and cash. In New York, 85-year-old Laura Viehdeffer was arrested for selling, of all things, her arthritis medication. Also in New York, Archie Bethea, 91, was taken into custody for peddling his prescriptions on the street.
According to Allen, many of the people — like the Bladen County 75-year-old — arrested for dealing opioids are first-time offenders who have turned to prescription pills to supplement their income.
“I may be able to sympathize with their plight, but it doesn’t make it right,” Allen said compassionately. “The law is the law, and you can’t sell your medication. There are other ways to get help.”
Bladen County Assistant District Attorney Quentin McGee agreed.
“By definition, anyone who sells drugs is a drug dealer,” he remarked. “Your run-of-the-mill drug dealer with cocaine and marijuana has (opioids) too — they are indiscriminate in the types of drugs they will sell. When you talk about people who simply deal in pills, you have a different subset. You don’t see them just standing on the corner. In my experience, they are different, but they’re still drug dealers.”
What fuels the troubling phenomena is the ability of senior citizens to garner prescriptions. Since the elderly could legitimately be in pain, providers whose very lives have been devoted to helping people feel better could have a difficult time turning them down. A 2016 study by Pacira Pharmaceuticals revealed 91 percent of providers feel pressured to write opioid prescriptions, a statistic the studiers themselves called “alarming.”
It’s easy for seniors to fall into the trap. Since most people wouldn’t look for an unassuming elderly person to be dealing pharmaceuticals, they’re often prime targets to be preyed upon by drug dealers needing a steady supply. Dealers may recruit them with promises of money then later sell the drugs at a steep markup, with pills being sold beginning at $10 apiece, depending on type of drug and its potency. In addition, family members or friends who may be addicted can threaten older adults into obtaining pills for them, or seniors may view the action as simply “sharing” their medication.
To combat any temptation that may exist for residents to improperly use opioids, the State Bureau of Investigation donated a medication drop box to Bladen County. Residents are able to dispose of unused or expired medications by bringing them to the drop box, located at the Sheriff’s Office at 299 Smith Circle in Elizabethtown.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.