Caring Currents

Prescription Addiction Part 3: No Magic Pill

Last updated: Jul 31, 2008


To help avoid prescription drug abuse and dependence by the elderly, there are simple steps you can take, according to psychologist Fredric Blow, an expert on seniors and addiction.

Blow, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan Medical School, says that prescriptions for painkillers and sedatives are on the rise -- and so are rates of addiction. Blow appreciates the value of these drugs to ease pain and help people sleep, among other things, but says that in most cases drugs should be used for short term relief -- not as a daily crutch.

Addiction isn’t the only risk. It’s easy to inadvertently misuse these powerful drugs, and it can take as little as a glass of wine with dinner or a dose of cold medication. “When you combine these agents with alcohol or other drugs, they are very, very dangerous,” according to Blow.

Painkillers and sedative labels warn against alcohol use, but an elderly person may forget about the warning, or figure that a small drink once in awhile can’t hurt. But Blow explains that the effects of alcohol become more intense as we age, and even a small amount of alcohol, in combination with certain prescription medications, can suppress breathing -- with fatal results.

It’s also essential not to combine drugs -- prescription or not -- without consulting your health practitioner, or to deviate from the prescribed dosage. “People often decide that if one pill doesn’t bring relief, they might as well try another,” Blow says. “Or if their arthritis acts up, they take one of the pills left over from an old prescription without considering the possibility of a drug interaction.”

Families can help by encouraging older relatives to use painkllers and sedatives only when absolutely necessary, and to taper off as soon as they can. It’s equally important to help seniors tackle the underlying problems, and not just treat their symptoms.

If a senior has an ongoing problem with pain, for example, a pain management specialist may be able to suggest strategies for controlling pain without drugs. For seniors with sleep problems, Blow recommends practicing what he calls “sleep hygiene,” which includes limiting caffeine and daytime naps, making time for regular exercise, and using the bed only for sleep and sex, among other good sleep habits.

Anxiety and insomnia may signal other underlying problems, like depression, for example. Many seniors suffer from depression and may not acknowledge it -- or even be entirely aware of it. A consultation with a therapist or geriatric specialist will help you figure out what's going on. And if elderly relatives are lonely or bored, you may be able to help them tap into local senior activities and resources. "It's important to check in with seniors regularly and find out what's going on with them," says Blow.

Other ways you can help seniors avoid problems with prescription medications:

  • Remind them to always avoid alcohol when taking painkillers or sedatives.
  • Encourage them to bring all their medications to their doctor when they go for their yearly checkups, so the physician has a record of exactly what they’re taking.
  • Check in with your parents regularly about their medication use -- prescription and over-the-counter -- and be sure they understand label warnings and the dangers of drug interaction.
  • Encourage them to throw out outdated prescription and over-the-counter medications.
  • Stay as connected as you can and make sure you know what medications your parents are taking, and why.

Image by drewcipher used under the Creative Commons licensing agreement.