America’s Opioid Crisis: The Impact on Seniors

with Kathleen Cameron of the National Council on Aging

The misuse of, and addiction to, opioids is a national crisis affecting all communities — including older adults.

Kathleen Cameron of the National Council on Aging discusses the impact of the opioid epidemic on older adults, including how the crisis is eroding their quality of life.

Posted on:

Mar 31, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: America's opioid crisis is at epidemic proportions, impacting people of all races, gender, and economic status. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. And while treatment with opioids can lead to addiction, older Americans are also affected by the fallout from the addiction of others, financially supporting addicted adult children and becoming caregivers for grandchildren. Kathleen Cameron is the senior director for the Center for Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging, and she joins me to talk about all of it. Kathleen, welcome to you.

Cameron: Thank you so much. We appreciate your interest in this important topic.

Anderson: So we were talking about the fallout from all of this. What does that look like on the ground? What are some of the things that these older Americans are now facing as a result of the opioid crisis and addiction?

Cameron: There are many impacts of the opioid epidemic for older adults across the country. And at the National Council on Aging, we work with community-based organizations across the nation. And we've been hearing anecdotally about the impact of the opioid epidemic, older adults actually misusing and becoming addicted to opioids as a result of pain management, perhaps, or depression. In addition, they were reeling from the impact of their children becoming addicted, maybe overdosing and passing away and then caring for grandchildren or younger relatives. So there are a lot of things happening. In addition, older adults were coming in asking for additional benefits that they need to support either their prescription use or to support, you know, their their daily activities around food, heating, those sorts of things that are healthcare.

Anderson: And a lot of that coming hand in hand with the idea that they may be becoming caregivers themselves, stretching their resources.

Cameron: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Burdened by the extra financial impact of caring for younger relatives.

Anderson: So you guys did a massive study about this not too long ago. And, of course, the big takeaway was the impact that it was having widely on older adults. But what were some of the sort of sub-takeaways that really made you sit up and say, "Whoa"?

Cameron: Yeah. We surveyed over 200 community-based organizations across the country, from rural, suburban, and urban areas. And what we found is that, first of all, older adults are getting prescribed opioids at a very high rate. And many of them don't understand the impact that those opioids have on their bodies. And they oftentimes will receive multiple opioids because they may be seeing more than one prescriber who is giving them opioids. So it's really important that older adults and caregivers understand the medications that they're taking and ask important questions. And that's all about improving the health literacy of older adults. We also found that some older adults who were on opioids, their opioids are being stolen by family members, sadly, or friends who are coming into the home who had an opioid-use disorder. So that's another issue that we found in the study. We also found that, again, many older adults were caring for these younger relatives. I mean, that's a problem all across the country.

Anderson: It's a huge issue.

Cameron: Right. And opioids really have increased that impact. So we want to make sure the older adults who are caring for younger relatives understand their legal rights, what benefits they're entitled to. And that's part of what we do at the National Council on Aging.

Anderson: One of the things I found interesting is that even though your team found that there was an increase in the erosion of the quality of life of these older Americans dealing with this, there wasn't an increase in the screening for misuse. Where's the disconnect here?

Cameron: Yeah.

Anderson: And what are you guys doing to change that?

Cameron: Right. Well, many older adults are going to, you know, senior centers, Area Agencies on Aging. We call that the Aging Network across the country. And many are not trained and equipped to do that type of screening. And that's why we really feel it's important that the Aging Network partners with behavioral health, substance-use providers across the country and do referrals across each other so that those who need assistance or treatment with substance-use disorders get the treatment that they need.

Anderson: So that's at the sort of caregiving medical level. But what about, you know, all of us? What can we do as a society to be more attuned to this? What do I need to look for?

Cameron: We need to be attuned to every medication that we're taking, understand the side effects, understand how they're impacting our bodies. And for older adults who have multiple chronic conditions, they're taking many, many medications. And they need to ask their pharmacist, ask their doctors lots of questions about their medications, again, because they may be taking duplicative opioid medications and not even know it.

Anderson: Certainly.

Cameron: And that could lead to misuse of those opioids and to addiction.

Anderson: So people are certainly going to want more information about this. Where can you point them to get that?

Cameron: Absolutely. That's the National Council on Aging's website. In addition, in order to find local resources, I recommend the Eldercare Locator and the local Area Agency on Aging.

Anderson: Fantastic. Kathleen, thank you.

Cameron: Thank you so much.

Anderson: And thanks to you for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

Loading Loading...