Walk into any home where an elderly person lives and chances are there are prescription medications somewhere. Prescription medications have a rightful place in the treatment and maintenance of many age-related conditions and illnesses, and they improve the quality of life for many senior citizens and their families. However, if these medications fall into the wrong (especially younger) hands, it can be an invitation to disaster.
Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic
Most people with prescription drug addictions begin by experimenting around with pills prescribed to family members and friends that they find in a medicine cabinet in a home. They do not procure their drugs from dealers in the streets. The most commonly abused prescriptions are those used to treat chronic pain, insomnia, and dementia-related anxiety. Many times dentists will prescribe pain medications after restorative procedures, and elderly people may keep them on hand. The two classes of prescription drugs most commonly abused by minors are narcotic pain pills (opiates) and tranquilizers (benzodiazepines). The most frequently prescribed medications in these groups include:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Restoril (temazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Ambien (zoldipem)
- Lunesta (eszopiclone)
- Vicodin (Hydrocodone)
- Oxycodone (Oxycontin)
If an elderly person has any of these prescriptions, it is very important to keep them in a safe place. The statistics associated with prescription drug abuse are simply staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about two million Americans became dependent on prescription pain pills in 2014. Of those who abused prescription pain pills, more than 14,000 lost their lives to overdoses in that year alone. In fact, drug overdose deaths from prescription pain pills accounted for 60% of all overdose related deaths. More people have been dying from prescription drugs than from heroin or cocaine-some of the most intimidating drugs known. Even worse, most heroin addicts admit they began by using prescription drugs and turned to heroin as a cheaper and easier way to get high.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes a survey each year conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The Monitoring the Future survey looks at 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students across the nation in an effort to better understand trends in drug and alcohol abuse. The 2015 survey showed that of the 13,700 12th grade students surveyed, 5% reported abusing prescription pain pills. The same number of students also reported abusing tranquilizers. Those statistics are higher than the use of cocaine, ecstasy, crystal meth, inhalants, and even heroin.
Changing the Face of Prescription Drug Abuse
One of the main contributors to the prevalence of prescription drug abuse among younger generations is the misconception that since a doctor prescribes them, there is an element of safety to them. After all, if they are in Grandma’s cupboard, how harmful could they possibly be? There have been many policy changes brought about in the last few years that have helped to bring much needed awareness to the dangers of taking medicines prescribed to someone else and in ways not recommended by a physician. According to the same Monitoring the Future survey, prescription drug abuse rates among all of the grades steadily declined between 2009 and 2012. Yet the CDC has still declared prescription drug abuse to be a national epidemic and the elderly are an easy target for anyone looking for medications.
Seniors are particularly vulnerable because they are the ones with the most prescriptions on hand. According to SAMHSA, around 25% of all seniors have prescription medications that alter a person’s brain function, mood, and consciousness. They are also more likely to have them on hand to treat chronic conditions such as dementia and sleep disorders. They are also less likely to notice if pills disappear.
Keep Addictive Prescriptions in a Safe Place
Taking precautions in the home can help prevent dangerous prescriptions from falling into the hands of a grandchild, child, or even a hired home health aide. Medications need to be kept in a safe place, and if necessary, locked up. There are many locking medication storage devices available on the market, including lockable pill boxes that could prevent minors from accessing them.
Another important tip to remember is to keep only the medications needed on hand. Seniors and their caregivers need not worry about storing extra pills that are more likely to expire than be used. In the event a certain medication is needed, or more of an existing prescription is required, the attending doctor should be notified for a new prescription.
Any medications that are being spirited away by someone else are not making it to the elderly person who needs them. Such actions also place the person abusing the drugs in the direct path of substance abuse and addiction. Taking heed and being proactive when it comes to keeping prescription drugs out of the hands of minors keep everyone safer and in better health.
Centers for Disease Control. Prescription Opioid Overdose Data. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html. Last visited May 25, 2016.
Johnson, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J.E. (2015). Monitoring the Future, National Survey Results on Drug Use, 2015 Overview, Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health. Available at http://monitoringthefuture.org/pubs/monographs/mtf-overview2015.pdf. Last visited May 26, 2016.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Specific Populations and Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse. Available at http://www.samhsa.gov/prescription-drug-misuse-abuse/specific-populations. Last visited May 27, 2016.