The Heartbreak of Senior Opiate Addiction

The Heartbreak of Senior Opiate Addiction


elderly opiate addiction(This post was originally published in June 2014.)

USA Today recently published an article on a national disgrace: the fact that doctors and Big Pharma that are destroying the lives of seniors in America by prescribing—and then continuing to prescribe—opiates at a feverish pace.

As Dr. Mel Pohl of the Las Vegas Recovery Center points out in the article’s online video, the US has four percent of the world’s population but 80% of its opioid users. And why’s that? Because America just keeps taking out its prescription pad. The video features a number of heartbreaking stories—including that of 67-year-old Betty Van Amburgh, who was prescribed “a constant changing of medications” for 20 years and ended up addicted. Van Amburgh—who entered rehab with a shopping bag full of prescribed fentanyl, hydrocodone, and Xanax—was nearly unconscious, but still in pain.

This medical system is rendering our parents comatose, and no one’s taking responsibility because there’s just so much money to be made from pain.

And it fucking breaks my heart.

I visited my mother a few weeks ago. It was all the same: The bedroom smelling of urine; the nest of a bed, the tray of pills and white tablets scattered everywhere. I could grab one so easily. I hear they’re—Oh, I hear they’re delicious.

When my brothers and I swam in Lake Michigan as kids, Mom would stand on the hot sand in her orange polka-dot bikini, hands on hips, her eyes determinedly scanning the shoreline for her children’s bobbing heads. Mom knew the lake had an insidious undertow, and she was damned if it’d get us.

She got her PhD at the University of Chicago and for decades lectured at the Art Institute on Degas and Gauguin. She wouldn’t leave a bad marriage and chose to live with the pain. No, she chose to medicate the pain. So vodka entered the picture.

But now, like so many seniors, she lives in a daze of opioids—pain pills she cannot do without even though they don’t seem to alleviate the pain. Dr. Pohl wouldn’t be surprised. He says, “The real problems with these drugs is that they stop working effectively. More than 70% of the patients that are on them long-term are not getting the benefits they do when they first start them.”

Something’s got to be figured out, and soon. Overdose deaths among the 55+ crowd tripled from 1999-2010. According to the CDC, 75% of those deaths involved opioids.

I understand why doctors keep writing the prescriptions. As David Oslin, an addiction specialist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says, “People don’t want to take away a 70-year-old’s medications.” Once something’s been prescribed, it’s tough to cut the supply off. (And doesn’t Big Pharma goddamn know it.) Doctors don’t have another answer when they’re looking at patients who are already hooked.

Maybe this USA Today article will help people realize the gravity of this situation. Alas, many medical professionals still seem not to get it. The Johns Hopkins Health Alerts Website has the temerity to state that, “A person who takes pain medication for a legitimate ailment or injury has a slim chance of developing an addiction. The risk increases when opioids are given to someone who has a personal or family history of addiction or has a psychological disorder.”

My mother, like so many, was introduced to opiates in the hospital. She was in for cirrhosis. She’d also fallen and hurt her back. You’d think, given the obvious indications of alcohol abuse and her age, they might’ve prescribed her something else. But Mom was so sick; they thought she’d die so soon. And for us, it was good to see her out of pain.

Now it’s years later. She’s in more pain than ever, and she’s also far more remote than alcoholism alone ever rendered her. We’ve tried tough love, Alanon, interventions. She has a caregiver but refuses detox, rehab. In front of the doctor, my mom tries to become an articulate woman again. The doctor treats her rambling comments with great respect; he’s a kind man. He gives her the pills.

It’s happening all over the country. Drug use is surging amongst baby boomers.  And many seniors tend to view Western medicine with a lot of faith. Betty Van Amburgh did, and ended up on that endless cocktail of medications that didn’t kill her pain but did extinguish her will to live. Post-rehab, she takes only Tylenol, and says it works.

And in my mother’s apartment I keep thinking about those scattered pills, wondering, Why can’t I get fucked up?

But I can’t. Instead I just keep my eyes on her frail form as the undertow relentlessly pulls her away. I cannot drag her to safety. I lean against the doorway and begin to cry, thinking how I cannot bear to lose my smart, funny, loving mother. It’s a silly thing to think, because I already have.



  1. prescription drug addiction statistics 2012 on

    Very soon this web site will be famous among all
    blog viewers, due to it’s nice posts

  2. LAMY45, you are not very bright, or at the very least know nothing about addiction. Dealing with an addict, whether they are 17 or 84 is never fun. I don’t care if they are buying it on the street or getting it straight from their pill pushing doctors to just get them off his back. Addiction changes people’s personalities and destroys their lives, no matter what age they are.

    I have watched by 70 something mother become a mean, depressed person, with no zest for life anymore, who says hateful things and doesn’t even realize it. This is NOT the kind and loving person who raised me. And, the real kicker is, after 20+ years of being on painkillers they do NOTHING now to ease any pain. The tolerance is there. It doesn’t matter what they switch her to.

    And, the fact that the doctors just keep prescribing more and more, and she hoards them and hides them in all kinds of places (typical addict behavior), for fear of running out one day, simply blows my mind. I guess it is easier for them to keep prescribing, because it gets the seniors off their backs. But, they don’t stop to think of the lives that are being destroyed around that person, outside of the confines of their sterile little offices.

    It is very hard to watch a parent you love become a shell of themselves and you seem to think the writer of this article was rough on her mom? Are you kidding me?

    I have spent the past 24 hours reading countless stories of people who were in this same position, and faced up to it and checked themselves into rehab, in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. They are happier and more productive now than they have been in 20 years, after kicking this awful habit of prescription pain addiction. And most report they feel LESS pain now, since coming off the meds.

    It’s a vicious cycle that many choose to ignore, simply because it makes their own lives easier in the short term. This includes doctors, spouses, children who don’t have to deal with their parents regularly, due to living far away from them, and friends (who quite often also share the same type of prescription med addicitions). Often, dealing with this parent falls to the children closest to them (both emotionally and distance wise) and they become the brunt of their anger and vitriolic behaviour, simply because they tell them the truth and love them so much they don’t want to see them spending their golden years in a narcotic induced stupor, instead of living it as a productive and vital citizen.

  3. I feel very sorry for your mother it is no fun being addicted to painkillers ,the other side of the coin is that i presume she is pain free and once she builds a tolerance for one medication she is put on another ,i hope .its also a shame that you have given her tough love and bullied her into detox ,sounds like you want to control her and make her life unbearable ,this is quite prevalent in aa/na if they dont adhere to what you want well kick them .

Leave A Reply

About Author

Dana Burnell has written for The London Times Sunday Magazine, The Guardian Weekend Magazine, Inside New York and Time Out New York. A former Editorial Assistant at Harvard Review, she’s the received Mellon Foundation Grant and two Fiction Fellowship Grants from Columbia University. She’s written two novels, Mistaken Nonentity and The Tame Man.