OCEAN CITY — Addiction is often thought to be an issue that plagues the young or the middle-aged, but statistical data shows that one of the fastest growing demographics abusing opiates is the elderly.
“Seventy percent of the opiate addicts in Maryland get there by the prescription drug route,” says Dr. Michael Finegan, a clinical psychologist at Peninsula Addictions Services in Salisbury who is the only Eastern Shore member of the Governor’s Opiate Taskforce. “We don’t have concrete numbers on this, but I think it’s very safe to theorize that the number is even higher with our geriatric population. They have been given medication that they have become addicted to, and if they have a change in prescription or financial situation, these older individuals are at an increased risk of turning to illicit drugs like heroin or buying pills off the street.”
Often dubbed the “hidden epidemic” by health experts, prescription pill usage amongst Americans over the age of 65 is not just landing them in hospitals or rehabilitation centers across the country at an increasing rate, they may indirectly be their grandchildren’s first drug provider.
“When you see the geriatric grandmother, one is not thinking of an individual who is a source of illicit drugs for the community,” said Finegan. “But that comes in two flavors: one is the perception that there is more leniency with the older demographic and give them large dosages or numbers of prescription pills like oxycotin, and two is the fact that their supply is often stolen out of their homes, unbeknownst to them by everyone from their plumber to their grandchildren.”
Finegan says Worcester County is a bimodal distribution center of heroin and opiates and points to Ocean Pines as the perfect example.
“It’s bimodal because you have two very distinct source points,” he said. “You have the older residents who are being prescribed opiates and becoming addicted and then you have the younger demographic who are becoming addicted, too. So, in some cases, kids are getting opiates on the street, and other times, they are just getting it from their grandmother’s medicine cabinet.”
Finegan says there is also a small sub-group of elderly residents who are knowingly selling their extra pills as a way to make money.
“We don’t like to think or attribute that sort of criminal activity to the elderly, but it is happening here,” said Finegan.
Sgt. Nate Passwaters of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Drug Enforcement Team released statistical data gathered from pill-drops in Ocean Pines over the past three years. While the pill-drops are anonymous, his team sifts through the data and logs what types of opiates are in the community.
“The street value alone of these opiates that we are finding in the Ocean Pines community is staggering,” said Passwaters. “We are talking thousands of dollars’ worth of pills that are getting people hooked on opiates that have been prescribed by a doctor.”
The reports show that thousands of opiate pills, including Oxycotin, Hydrocodone, Hydromorphone, Morphine, Codeine, Propoxyphene, Suboxone and even Fentanyl, have been deposited in Ocean Pines pill-drops in the past three years.
In 2013, 55 million opiod prescriptions were written by physicians in this country for people over 65, marking a 20-percent increase in the number of prescriptions written in the previous five years, and nearly doubled the growth rate of the senior population, according to IMS Health, which tracks drug dispensing for the government.
Finegan says the trend that needs to be addressed is the phenomenon of pain rating.
“There are proper uses of opiates in modern medicine as far as treating pain,” he said, “but unfortunately, I think we’ve become a society of trying to completely eliminate our pain all the time, and it’s having adverse effects on our young people and our elderly.”
Finegan believes physicians are truly trying to help their patients manage their pain, but they need to be responsible when prescribing opiates to their patients. He says, smaller doses and frequent conversations about the usage of opiates to manage pain are vitally important between patients and physicians or dentists or nurse practitioners.
Yet, in 2017, it seems the state will step in as well to help that process along as well.
“Starting next year in Maryland, the prescribers of medicine must register with the prescription drug monitoring program, and if they don’t, they will not be able to renew their medical license,” said Finegan. “So, the governor has put real teeth into this legislation because people will comply with that or they can’t practice medicine or dentistry any longer.”
Furthermore, in 2018, Finegan says all prescribers in Maryland have to check the prescription drug monitoring program before prescribing an opiate, a progressive part of the legislation that Finegan says directly came from the Governor’s Opiate Taskforce.
While the image of heroin or opiate addiction in our country might still be of the skinny, strung out youth with track marks on their arms or a glazed look in their eyes, Finegan says part of educating a community on not just the dangers of addiction is to realize that the face of the danger not only comes in many forms, but it can also be found in what would normally be thought of as the safest place in the world: grandma’s house.
“Heroin and opiate addiction is a very different animal,” said Finegan. “You have to treat a young addict and an older addict very differently, but the relapse rate for opiate addicts of all ages is 85% for the first five years of treatment.”