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Drug abuse by elders often a hidden problem

One in a series of occasional articles about opiate abuse and its consequences.

SCITUATE — At the Catherine McGowan Senior Center, Florence Choate, director of Scituate’s Council on Aging, offers a variety of programs for seniors, but she rarely talks with them about addiction to prescription narcotics.

“If we held a discussion on seniors with addiction issues around prescription pills, most of them would not come,” Choate said. “It is a hidden addiction. . . . There are very few seniors who will get help for alcohol or opiate addiction.”

In an effort to address opiate abuse in communities south of Boston, the council last week cohosted a regional forum called “Opiate 101” at the Scituate Harbor Community Building.


The event Monday attracted about 100 people, half of them seniors, and focused on ways that seniors can safely discard prescription medicine, particularly to prevent young people from gaining access to opiate painkillers.

In the suburbs around Boston, addiction to opiate narcotics, such as OxyContin and Percocet, is known as an epidemic striking young people. And police are warning that prescription pain pills are leading youths to heroin, since pills on the street can cost $250 per day while a bag of heroin is $10.

Yet opiate abuse is also taking a toll on older people. In Massachusetts, a significant number of adults over 54 seek substance abuse services, with a surprising number seeking treatment for heroin addiction.

Alcohol abuse accounts for about 75 percent of substance treatment admissions among older adults, but heroin is now the second-most popular substance of choice.

Last year, 801 people, or nearly 15 percent of the 5,357 older adults admitted to substance abuse services in Massachusetts, were treated for heroin addiction. Between 1997 and 2007, heroin use rose by 283 percent among older residents admitted for substance abuse treatment, according to statistics from the state Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.


Choate, a substance abuse and mental health counselor for 30 years before joining Scituate’s Council on Aging, said older people are loath to talk about addiction issues, which makes it difficult to help those addicted to prescription pain medication or heroin.

But these substances are highly addictive for all populations, says Annmarie Galvin, a member of Families, Adolescents, and Communities Together Against Substances, the coalition of people in Cohasset, Hingham, Hull, Norwell, and Scituate that cohosted Monday night’s forum.

“It is a shame thing for many seniors. I can tell you a senior would never have come into one of my clinics,” said Choate, referring to her previous work.

“Seniors everywhere can be addicted to prescription drugs. I can tell you that a lot of home accidents happen because someone had too much to drink or took too many pills, but seniors don’t generally seek help for addiction.”

And it’s not a subject brought up at the senior center in Scituate. “We seldom see a senior who has a problem or is identifying with a problem,” said Choate.

Maryanne Frangules, executive director of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, a nonprofit based in Brockton, agreed that opiate addiction among seniors is a nearly invisible issue.

Frangules, a panelist at the forum Monday, said the subject is “not something people really talk about.”

“I get calls from people asking, ‘What do I do about my mother? What do I do about my father?’ It is very difficult when you know someone is in chronic pain and they are prescribed a medication and it alters their personality,” she said.


Family members see the signs of addiction, she said, but often fail in attempts to get their elder to look at the problem, since denial is part of it.

“People feel powerless. They say this isn’t the parent they knew. It is very hard for them to witness, but it’s just so hard to get that generation — the baby boomers — to get help. They don’t want to think of themselves as a person with an addiction, as what people see as an addict. They don’t want to be that,” she said.

Scituate police Lieutenant Detective Mike Stewart, a member of the Old Colony Police Anti-Crime Task Force, a coalition of police detectives from more than a dozen communities south of Boston, said in an interview that seniors with opiate addiction go unnoticed because their problem is often “quietly taken care of” by health care providers and family.

“Do seniors become addicted to opiate pain medication? Absolutely. But we’re not seeing seniors trying to buy pills on the street or buy heroin or committing crimes. So they are pretty much off our radar,” said Stewart, who also spoke at the forum.

Frangules said people should get help for themselves or for an elder loved one with an opiate addiction.

She suggested contacting her organization or the help line for the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.

“If you see an older family member in trouble, don’t just sit there alone,” she said.


Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@ gmail.com.