Hundreds of thousands of seniors in the United States are abusing prescription drugs. For everything from depression to joint pain, older Americans are receiving prescriptions for highly addictive drugs at record levels.
USA Today recently interviewed Betty Van Amburgh, a senior currently in treatment for her addiction to prescription painkillers. When asked to bring along all her medication, Betty arrived with a shopping bag full of boxes and bottles – transdermal patches laced with fentanyl, a narcotic up to 100 times stronger than morphine; bottles of the powerful opioid hydrocodone; packages of Xanax, an addictive sedative.
When asked how she was able to acquire prescriptions to so many different and potentially dangerous drugs, Betty answered: “The doctors just kept prescribing them. It was always, ‘Do you have pain? Let me give you a prescription.’ But I got addicted. I was a zombie.”
The toll on the senior community is significant. Rising overdose deaths, a spike in emergency room visits, and increasing admission to addiction treatment programs are reasons to be concerned about the medical community’s willingness to offer narcotic painkillers and other meds without a second thought.
“There’s a growing group of seniors, they have pain, they have anxiety, and a lot of (doctors) have on thing in their tool box – a prescription pad. The doctor wants to make their life better, so they start on the meds.” Says Mel Pohl, medical director at the Las Vegas Recovery Center, which treats seniors for pain and drug dependence.
As patients build a tolerance for their medication, dosages begin to grow over time, which leads to dependence. It’s a common path. In fact, no other segment of the population is prescribed more drugs than seniors, and none face higher chances of complications. Elderly patients on medication face a higher risk of falling or suffering from respiratory failure.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma associated with the problem. No one wants to take away a 70-year-old’s medications.
After ending up in Pohl’s Las Vegas treatment program, Betty Van Amburgh got her life back. “They told me I’d be in less pain and I didn’t believe them, but I’m like a new person,” she says. “The thing that still pisses me off, though, is that nobody tried to take me off the drugs sooner. From one doctor to another to another, they just wrote me prescriptions. Really… I think it was just ignorance.”