Older adults are often left out of the discussion when it comes to prescription drug misuse, dependence, and abuse. Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in this country, and it’s not just confined to the younger patient population. It is estimated that 11% of elderly patients abuse prescription medication.1
The elderly consume roughly one quarter of the prescriptions sold in the United States.1 Elderly patients often have chronic pain, anxiety, or insomnia that requires the use of potentially addictive medication. Additionally, elderly patients may not be adequately treated with their current therapies. These risk factors, along with social isolation, depression, and limited functionality, make the geriatric population particularly at risk for substance misuse and abuse.
Providing safe and effective care for elderly patients requires that signs of prescription misuse, dependence, and abuse are recognized quickly. The medications that are often abused can lead to events such as falls and accidents that require these patients to be admitted to inpatient units or nursing homes. To effectively manage prescription medication misuse and abuse in this population, the definition of substance misuse, dependence, tolerance, and abuse should be addressed.
Misuse- Prescription medication misuse is the improper taking of medication by the patient. It is most commonly by accident, but can also be intentional. Assess your patient’s ability to take medication correctly. It may be necessary to provide pharmaceutical education to your patient. Examples include.2
• Taking medication differently than directed on the label due to poor eyesight or reading ability
• Doubling up on doses
• Borrowing medication from friends or family members
• Acquiring medication online to treat self-diagnosed conditions
Physical dependence and Tolerance- Physical dependence evolves from the continued regular use of a substance that results in withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation. Tolerance to medication occurs when patients need higher doses of medication to achieve adequate symptomatic relief. Patients with physical dependence and tolerance may display drug-seeking behavior that can be misconstrued as psychological dependence (addiction).2 Assess the patient’s current condition and medication profile. The patient’s therapy may be inadequate due to tolerance or lack of efficacy. Communicate concerns with the patient’s physician. The patient may then cease to engage in drug-seeking behavior.
Psychological dependence (addiction)- Psychological dependence is a state that demonstrates loss of control and/or compulsive drug-seeking behavior.3 These patients engage in medication use despite the potential for adverse consequences. These patients need professional help to overcome both physical and psychological dependence. At this point, it is important to understand that these patients are potentially putting themselves and others in immediate danger.
In hospice, it is rare for a patient to become psychologically dependent on medication. It is important to be aware of any signs of substance abuse among family members or caregivers. Recognizing signs of caregiver abuse is important to protect patients and provide the best possible care for the end-of-life stage. It’s important to listen your patient’s concerns regarding their medication and to assess the root cause of medication discrepancies.
1 Culbertson JW, Ziska, M. Prescription drug misuse/abuse in the elderly. Geriatrics. 2008; 63(9): 22-31.
2 Agins, A. Prescription drug abuse: from bad to worse. CEdrugstorenews.com March/April 2012. Retrieved July 5, 2012 at: http://www.cedrugstorenews.com/userapp//lessons/lesson_view_ui.cfm?lessonuid=401-000-12-201-H01.
3 American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Methods of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition, Text Revision). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 2000;199-273