How Seniors Can Avoid Being Targeted By the Opioid Epidemic

Updated on April 10, 2018

Maricha Ellis Stericycle headshotBy Maricha Ellis

America’s aging population is rapidly growing and, with it, the insidious disease of opioid addiction.

Reports show that by 2030, there will be over 300 million more people over the age of 65 than there were in 2014. Further research shows that the number of older people who have at least four different long-term medical conditions is set to double by 2035 – increasing the likelihood that even more opioids will be prescribed to help seniors deal with the physical pain associated with their illnesses.

As a result, this demographic is currently experiencing the largest spike in opioid overdose deaths. Even more troubling is that drug addiction in this age group is often the hardest to detect, which is mostly due to isolation – as many in this age group have retired, live far away from family and/or have a diminishing social circle.

Here are three safety measures seniors (and their loved ones) should consider in order to avoid falling victim to opioid addiction, and safeguard against becoming a target of addicts.

Effective prescription management

Fifty percent of older adults who live on their own suffer from chronic pain, and this number jumps to 75 – 85 percent for those who live in care facilities. Carefully managing and regulating daily medication intake can be confusing and stressful, especially without the help of a nurse, spouse or other family member.

Seniors should make a list of all the medications (prescription and over-the-counter) in their medicine cabinet and record their expiration dates. This list can then be presented to their doctor or pharmacist to identify redundancies, refill only the prescriptions that are absolutely needed, and provide a daily schedule of how many pills to take and when.

This careful curation of essential medications will help to ease any stress or confusion over daily pill intake. Additionally, cutting down on the quantity of pills per prescription – especially opioids – will reduce the risk of drug overdose or addiction – or diversion by a family member or visitor.

Secure medication waste disposal

For the medications that have expired or are no longer needed, seniors should call or visit their local pharmacist to inquire if there are drug takeback programs available. For example, Walgreens offers a community takeback program to dispose of unused pills through their consumer-friendly, secure and anonymous drug takeback kiosks. These safe-deposit boxes can also be found at most law enforcement offices. Additionally, seniors living in remote areas or with mobility issues don’t have to resort to discarding or flushing the substances; rather, they can take advantage of mail-in envelope programs, which provide an easy and safe disposal alternative.

Medication waste – if not securely disposed – is not only one of the most common sources for drug diversion, it can also wreak havoc on our environment. While it is difficult to measure the impact of improperly disposed pills by individuals, an estimated 740 tons of drugs are wasted by nursing homes each year. Further research shows that a vast array of pharmaceuticals have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, due to people flushing or improperly disposing of pharmaceutical waste.

Depositing drugs through your pharmacy or local police department is the best way to ensure that those medications do not end up in our water streams, or in the wrong hands.

Defensive safety

The risk of drug diversion is especially high among older populations who are, unfortunately, easy targets for anyone seeking to obtain opioids for their own use or to sell. Seniors should entrust information about the medications they take with only a select few, and keep pills locked in a secure box or drawer. Seniors who live alone could also be targeted by others in their neighborhood, and should work closely with their local police department to report any suspicious behavior – for example, unexpected or first-time visits from neighbors who may know they’ve recently had surgery.

Multiple resources are available to seniors to help them prevent opioid misuse and diversion, whether it’s commissioning friends and family members to organize medicine cabinets, or calling on professional assistance from doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement to ensure the proper and secure disposal of unused pills.

Maricha Ellis is the Vice President of Marketing and Sales Operations of Stericycle Environmental Solutions, a leading provider of environmental and regulated waste management solutions. Stericycle Environmental Solutions leverages a nationwide network of experts, facilities, equipment and subcontractors to provide clients with one-call simplicity for any hazardous waste emergency response or disaster recovery need.


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