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The Hidden Addicts, Controlled Prescription Drugs and the Elderly

Jessica McConnan By Jessica McConnan, M.A. on January 17, 2016

Controlled prescription drug (CPD) addictions have reached epidemic proportions in the United States with new or redesigned medications hitting the markets daily. It’s an ugly picture to paint, but, the effects of CPDs in the elderly have increasingly, given rise to addictions and untimely deaths in these individuals for multiple reasons.

Few are more vulnerable to the consequential impacts of addiction than the elderly who suffer high rates of anxiety, depression, and stress, along with other physiological declines and ailments not so common in younger addicts. Those who need substance abuse treatment are equally, less likely to obtain it before the worst of their fears are realized and even then, the reluctance is high.

The Challenges of CPD use that the Elderly Face

Some of the biggest challenges the elderly face are CPDs prescribed for pain, anxiety, or depression and/or the combinations of these medications with one another serving as a conduit to unexpected problems including addiction, overdose, and worsening health conditions. It’s a far leap to say that most people, especially the elderly, are adequately aware of the problematic use of these drugs when they are being prescribed as essential medications by a trusted doctor.

Unfortunately, any physical or psychological health disorders in the elderly that may be caused or exacerbated by the CPD abuse are often disguised under the pretense of other health concerns or chalked up to being simply age-related. According to the Institute of Medicine,” Acute and chronic physical health conditions that are common in older adults and medications to treat the conditions can cause and exacerbate DSM-IV-TR mental disorders and other MH/SU conditions and worsen their impact on the person.”

Increased Access to CPDs and Problematic Abuse

Excessive use of CPDs tends to be more acceptable for and by the elderly complicating their lives further, but, an elderly person may not see themselves as an addict even when their health and social functioning begin to deteriorate as a result. In other scenarios, the typical response is to take CPDs to counter the adverse effects of other CPDs even when these individuals may be less equipped to manage the consequential effects.

Like anyone else who has a substance addiction, when the truth sets in and the person is no longer able to control their use of the CPDs, an elderly person may turn to alternative sources to satisfy their dependency needs including possibly trading or selling prescriptions to gain access to other preferred drugs or engaging in other dangerous behaviors. Alternately, these individuals may have a greater chance of receiving the drugs through multiple, yet, legitimate sources that perpetuates risks for abuse, addiction, and diversions for trade. They are, in fact, the highest consumers of medical services that promote the use of CPDs.

Co-Existing Mental Health and Substance Abuse Concerns

Mental health and substance use (MH/SU) disorders go hand in hand and by some estimates, nearly 50 percent of individuals treated for addictions have some type of mental health disorder requiring treatment also. According to the CDC, “Anxiety, like depression, is among the most prevalent mental health problems among older adults.” The CDC goes on to say that, “It is estimated that 20% of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern…and mental health issues are often implicated as a factor in cases of suicide.”

Some of the other more difficult problems in the elderly that promotes substance abuse may be loneliness, cognitive or memory declines, spousal loss and grief, or lack of motivations to embark in any significant lifestyle changes. They are not immune to any commonly associated addiction behaviors or the negative emotional states, cravings, and withdrawals that addiction entails, but, in fact, may be more at risk for other dangers including overdose, suicides, or victimizations.

Addiction Treatment for the Elderly

The issues of substance abuse in the elderly is nothing new, but, the potential for abuse and addiction to powerful CPDs such as opioids and benzodiazepines is cause for alarm when these individuals cannot afford to go substantial lengths of time before receiving adequate treatment and support for the consequences of their dependencies. These issues continue to raise the need for awareness in these hidden addicts who are less likely to consider treatment due to stigma, perceived ineffectiveness, or other health, familial, or societal concerns.

Although the problems with recognizing treatment needs for addictions in the elderly are wide open, a push is on to provide them with improved quality of care. According to the Institute of Medicine (US), “Treatment is most successful when it matches an individual’s needs and includes an array of integrated services, including primary care, specialty mental health and substance abuse care, and community-based care, such as social support programs.” Cohesive integration is the key; as many addicted elderly may be more accepting of addiction treatment when they know that their healthcare and other needs are being appropriately addressed and adequately managed.

If someone you know needs help with a controlled prescription drug addiction, we can give you the information and resources you need. Call us today at 800-654-0987.

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