Seniors have been impacted by opioid epidemic, too

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Though young adults dying prematurely have typically been the face of the opioid epidemic, it has also taken a toll on seniors.

In 2017, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported that Medicare beneficiaries had the highest and fastest growing rates of diagnosed opioid use disorder — more than six of every 1,000.

For Medicaid beneficiaries, the prevalence rate was 8.7 per 1,000, approximately 10 times higher than in populations who receive coverage under private insurance companies.

Benjamin Nguyen, a technology transfer specialist for the Opioid Response Network, and Robyn James, director of development and marketing for the Middle Alabama Area Agency on Aging, discussed addiction and seniors in the recent "Journey Series" webinar.

Nguyen discussed several reasons why seniors might turn to opioids other than chronic pain.

They may become depressed about the increasing loss of friends and loved ones in late life, as well as about the decline of their own health.

The loss of identity when moving from the working world into retirement and grappling with a new role related to sickness or chronic illness can also lead to grief, he added.

"Opioids relieve suffering. So we want to understand that there is physical suffering but there is also psychological and sometimes those two can be very blurred," Nguyen said.

From a social standpoint, older adults who live alone experience isolation and loneliness. In one AARP survey, 43 percent of seniors reported feeling lonely on a regular basis. 

The closure of senior centers except for meals during the pandemic has exacerbated that loneliness, according to James.

In July, the CMS reported that the percent of Medicare beneficiaries receiving higher than recommended doses of opioids declined by 45 percent between 2016 and 2019.  

Beginning in January, for the first time Medicare covered methadone furnished by opioid treatment programs for beneficiaries suffering from opioid use disorder.

James discussed other ways that the opioid epidemic is affecting seniors, even when they do not have a substance use disorder themselves.

Many are raising grandchildren because their children have died or been incarcerated because of an addiction.

There is also the risk that their prescription opioids will be stolen by someone or must sell them in order to make ends meet.

James also discussed the increased risk of elder abuse when a loved one, especially a caregiver, has a substance use disorder.