The Opioid Crisis in Older Adults

Abuse of opioids and other prescription drugs used to treat chronic illness, pain and depression is on the rise among older adults ages 65-plus. What are the signs and what can you do to help your loved one?

For older adults who suffer from chronic pain, opioids – prescription medications including oxycodone, codeine, hydrocodone and more – are often prescribed to help them cope. But as the population of individuals age 65 and up continues to increase, the rate of opioid abuse is increasing, too.

“Due to them having a lot of chronic illnesses and the depression, this problem is really growing in the aging community,” says Sandra Cummings, Director of Substance Use Disorders Services and Health Promotion at All Well-Being Services located in Detroit, which is funded through the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority and provides evidence-based services for adults, children and families.

But a senior’s prescription misuse could impact more than just their own health. “They have a lot of the medication in their homes, which poses a risk to either their grandchildren coming in and so forth,” Cummings says.

If you think your loved one might be abusing prescription opioids, Cummings offers insight on signs to look for and treatment information.

Signs of abuse

Whether your loved one takes an opiate for chronic pain or to help cope with pain post-surgery, he or she could quickly start to misuse that prescription. “Doctors are prescribing a lot of medication for the pain,” she says, and because that medication comes from a physician, many older adults might not realize that taking it incorrectly – either in higher doses or taking it more frequently than prescribed – is an issue.

“They want the drugs,” she says. “That chronic pain is so severe that they take it without monitoring.”

If you’re concerned your loved one is abusing his or her prescription medication, there are some signs to look out for, Cumming explains, including the following:

  • A rise in emergency room visits due to increased falls at home
  • Shortness of breath, also known as depressed respiratory functioning
  • Sleep issues
  • Concentration issues
  • Memory loss
  • Changes in appearance
  • Hostile behavior

Finding help

AWBS has over 25 years of substance abuse prevention experience. “I think that a lot of them are maybe embarrassed to talk about it,” Cummings says. “I do think they are in denial but the main thing is to get help, and they tend to be kind of embarrassed to reach out for help when it really gets out of control.”

That’s where caregivers come in.

If you suspect your loved one is misusing prescription drugs such as opioids, Cummings suggests reaching out to All Well-Being Services for tools and resources. “We do have social workers that can help them through the process.”

All Well-Being Services provides evidence-based curriculum and education to older adults in the community. They help older adults with everything from relaxation techniques and health promotion to details on how to communicate with their doctor.

“I do think the health promotion piece is really good, too, because we talk about healthy eating,” she says, “because a lot of them, when they are on the opioids, they are not eating well.”

In addition to these programs, social workers and a psychiatrist on staff can provide assistance. “The family may want to refer the person but as you know, the person has to be willing to go. At our agency, we do have those services.”

When it comes to other ways caregivers can help, Cummings recommends that they call their loved ones often to see how they are feeling, make frequent visits and even accompany them to their doctor’s appointments. Work with your loved one and be the support system they need.

Those seeking treatment can also contact the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority’s 24-hour helpline at 800-241-4949.

Content brought to you by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. For more information on programs and resources offered through All Well-Being Services, visit


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