The opioid epidemic has generated countless headlines and news stories, but Bill Stauffer believes an important part of the problem is being neglected: Misuse of the painkillers by older adults.
The Misericordia adjunct social work teacher got a chance to voice those concerns at a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday thanks to an invitation from Sen. Bob Casey.
“Opioid use has exploded in the United States, and Pennsylvania has been hit particularly hard,” Stauffer said Thursday. “But a population we haven’t talked about are older adults, one of the fastest rising groups in respect to issues related to opioids. One in three Medicare recipients are prescribed opioids and about 500,000 of them seem to be misusing them.”
Stauffer, who is also executive director of the Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance in Allentown, said he created a course for Misericordia on the topic and found “the literature is very scant.” He speculated that may be “because of stigma or a lack of understanding,” or because “when people consider substance abuse they often think of younger people.
“Factor in that we in this country are trained to respect older people and it gets even harder to talk to them about substance abuse,” he said. “And sometimes I think people feel ‘as they get older, just let them go.’”
Unlike younger drug abusers who often turn to illegal drugs, “From what we can see, for most of the older adults the opioids are prescribed.” Which makes one solution obvious: The government or insurance companies should fund other pain management approaches such as physical therapy or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
“All those things should be considered,” Stauffer said. “It’s not that these medicines don’t have a use, they certainly do, and we need to make sure opioids are available for those who are in need of them.”
But the most important part of addressing misuse of painkillers by the elderly is to acknowledge the problem. “We start by talking about it,” Stauffer said.
“I applaud Sen. Casey for really focusing on this. I think calling attention to it so that it does get more focus is important, and we need to examine how we use federal funding to support older adults.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish