Last year, medical doctors issued 17 million prescriptions for sedatives and tranquilizers, principally as sleep aids, for retirees 65 years old and over.
Worldwide, we consume approximately 80% of all prescription painkillers according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (NCADD). The council further reported that 11% of hospital admissions, 14% of emergency room admissions and 20% of psychiatric hospital admissions stem from senior drug or alcohol misuse and abuse. To put that into perspective, that’s as many people as are hospitalized each year for the number one killer of Americans — heart attacks.
Prescription drug misuse, abuse and addiction to opioids and benzodiazepines top the list for seniors. Opioids are primarily prescribed to treat pain but carry clear risks of dependance and addiction. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) found 22.9 million adults 50 and older use opioids non medically. Benzodiazepines, the most commonly prescribed class of psychiatric drug in America, treats anxiety, panic disorder and insomnia. They can also be highly habit forming and dangerous when mixed with other sedatives or alcohol. NIH reports that between 15% to 32% of people 65 and older misuse or abuse benzodiazepines.
Why does this rapidly growing disease of drug dependency amongst retirees remain shrouded in secrecy? Researchers hypothesize that guilt, lack of self-awareness and shame can stop seniors from reaching out for help. They also believe that it remains in the shadows because of family members struggling with denial.
How can their Mom, Grandma, Dad, or Grandpa be a drug addict? Simply explained, it’s not about the abuse of illicit drugs such as heroin or cocaine, but rather the misuse of prescription drugs when seniors up their dosage in order to seek greater relief and its eventual abuse if and when physical dependency takes control.
My friend’s father, Ed, had always been the historian for his family. He knew who married whom, where all the skeletons were hidden and just about any detail the family wanted to know. Yet over the past couple of years his memory seemed to be slipping. A few years earlier, he had been having trouble sleeping so his doctor prescribed a sleep aid medication for him. As his tolerance to the medication grew, the doctor raised his dosage and Ed also increased the number of pills he was taking whenever he had a bad night. This went on unabated for several years and his family chalked up their Dad’s increasing forgetfulness to old age.
About six months ago, when Ed was staying over at my friend’s home, he took far too many sleeping pills and accidentally overdosed. My friend found him collapsed in the bathroom. Ed was rushed to the hospital where his prescription overuse and physical addiction to his sedatives were uncovered. No one could believe it. Everyone had trouble facing up to the reality but with a lot of effort, support and guidance, Ed was eventually admitted to a rehab center and is now back to his old fighting form.
Identifying the signs of prescription drug misuse or abuse is very difficult since they mimic the natural consequences of aging. If you notice any of the following conditions, don’t hesitate to reach out for medical help even if you’re filled with self-doubt, indecision and guilt. Some examples to watch out for are: bruising of arms and legs from frequent falls, deteriorations in hygiene and home environment, excessive sleeping, forgetfulness, isolation from friends and family, weight loss, requesting early refills, doctor shopping.
Participating in an intervention and getting your loved one into rehab will undoubtably be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. Don’t despair, don’t give up, stay determined and remain hopeful. Remember, gaining back the person you’ve lost to prescription drugs is possible with the right medical treatment. Do the right thing, your loved one is depending on you even if they are far from appreciative at the time. Once they return, clear-headed, they will thank you for pulling them back from the brink.
In our next issue of FULL SPEED AHEAD we will further look into senior SUD.
Allan Goldstein is a retirement coach and Long Beach resident.