Maybe you’ve noticed the warning signs.

Your mom or dad appears to be increasingly dependent on their prescription painkillers. They’re restless, sedated, forgetful or just plain not themselves anymore. Your gut is telling you something’s not quite right.

But are they really part of the opioid crisis that’s sweeping the country? Or are they just getting older? It can be tough to tell the difference. That’s why knowing the facts and warning signs of opioid addiction can help you both.

Opioid Addiction and Seniors

Elderly hand holding pillsIn 2015, more than 20,000 people died from prescription painkiller overdoses.1 Tucked away inside that unsettling number is this fact: The death rate from opioid abuse in seniors (ages 55-64) has increased faster than any other age group, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.2

Part of the reason older populations may be at greater risk for opioid addiction is the frequency with which they use painkillers and other medications. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, while people 65 and older make up only 13 percent of the population, they also account for a third of outpatient spending on prescription drugs.3

Along with chronic pain, seniors may have the compound stress of living alone, dealing with the loss of a spouse or loved one and the absence of a supportive community. This can lead to long-term opioid abuse as they look for ways to ease their pain—both physical and emotional.

“The population that uses Medicare … has among the highest and most rapidly growing prevalence of opioid use disorder, with more than 6 of every 1000 patients (more than 300,000 of 55 million) diagnosed and with hospitalizations increasing 10 percent per year.4

But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. Far from it. With the right awareness, support and treatment, opioids don’t have to consume anyone’s life—especially not your parent’s.

How Do I Know If My Parent Is Addicted?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some helpful guidelines to reference if you suspect your mom or dad may be opioid-dependent.5 Here are some questions to consider:

  1. How long has your parent been on painkillers? The CDC says three to seven days is often enough time for most people to be on opioids. More than that could lead to addiction: “Even at low doses, taking an opioid for more than three months increases the risk of addiction by 15 times.”
  2. How high is their dosage? The lowest-possible dose of opioids should always be used, says the CDC. A dose of 90 MME or more increases a person’s risk of opioid overdose by 10 times.
  3. How else are they managing their pain? Long-term opioid abuse can cause patients to build up tolerance and need more of these drugs to alleviate their pain. The CDC says milder pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen—along with physical and behavioral therapies are often enough to help a patient manage their symptoms.

How Do I Talk to My Parent?

Your mom or dad may not realize they have an opioid dependency issue. And unless you’re a medical professional, it’s best not to make a diagnosis yourself.

But if you suspect abuse, the first step is to lovingly talk to your parent about it. Just have a simple conversation. Have they noticed any changes in their daily lives? Do they feel like they’ve been taking more and more painkillers? Has their pain increased? Do they feel foggy or sluggish?

This isn’t an intervention. You don’t need to make them feel bad or invite the entire extended family over. Above all, do not to accuse them of being a “drug addict.” There is still a very real stigma associated with this term, and you may actually discourage them from being honest and seeking treatment.

Remember, your parent received this prescription—at least initially—from a trusted doctor. They assumed it was safe and necessary. But you’ve seen the day-to-day, week-to-week changes that your parent or their doctor might not be able to see. So don’t be afraid to speak up about it either.

Seeking Help and Treatment

After you talk to your parent, you may need to speak with their doctor as well—or go with them to their next appointment. Don’t expect your mom or dad to suddenly stop taking their prescription. This can lead to painful and dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Instead, ask your parent’s doctor to help you find a treatment plan based on what your parent needs. A good, well-rounded treatment approach may include medication-assisted therapy, physical therapy and counseling.

There’s not a one-size-fits all approach to recovery. Each patient is different. And treatment should always be tailored to suit each individual.

The best course of action is always to partner with your parent and a healthcare provider to find the right solution for your mom or dad’s specific situation. With your love and support, they can absolutely recover. It happens every single day.

1  Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts and Figures. American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2016.

2 What You Need to Know About Opioid Addiction and Older Adults. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, August 8, 2017.

3 Misuse of Prescription Drugs Research Report Series. National Institute on Drug Abuse, August, 2016.

4 Lembke, Anna and Jonathan Chen. “Use of Opioid Agonist Therapy for Medicare Patients in 2013.”  JAMA Psychiatry, September 2016.

5 Promising Actions for Safer Opioid Prescribing. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 2017.