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The Opioids Epidemic and Older Adults

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Opioids use is becoming more prevalent among aging adults creating a potential health hazard that could impact professionals as well as family caregivers. AARP found that 40 percent of older adults have chronic pain that is often treated with opioids. When looking at a National Poll on Healthy Aging, one in four older adults (29 percent) said they filled an opioid in the past two years.

While opioids can be an effective form of pain management, if not properly managed, they could have negative outcomes for older adults.

Opioids are a class of drug that reduces the perception of pain and produces a sense of well-being by binding to opioid receptors in the body. Some examples of prescription opioids include Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Codeine, Morphine, Fentanyl, Carfentanil and Sufentanil. Heroine is an illicit form of opioids.

As you’re likely aware, it’s best practice to use nonpharmacologic therapy and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy to attempt to control pain before initiating opioids. However, opioid use can be an effective part of a comprehensive pain care plan, especially in the following areas:

  • Acute and chronic pain
  • Active-phase cancer treatment
  • Palliative care
  • Hospice and end-of-life care

One of the problems for older adults when it comes to opioid use is the fact that as we age, our bodies metabolize medications differently. It is important to “start low, and go slow,” meaning start opioid at low doses and increase only as directed by a healthcare professional.

Misuse of these drugs is a potential risk, however, so professionals should be aware of the red flags that could indicate a senior may be headed for trouble:

  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Poor decision making
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor

To help avoid negative outcomes for older adults when it comes to opioids, it is important that seniors:

  • Work with their doctors to create a pain plan
    • Know their options including non-opioid ways to manage pain
    • Talk to their doctor about side effects and concerns
    • Follow up regularly and make informed decision with a doctor
  • Take and store opioids properly
    • Never take in greater amounts or more often than prescribed
    • Never sell or share prescriptions
    • Store in a secure place, out of reach of others
  • Dispose of unused prescription opioids at the end of their treatment at one of the following locations or methods:
  • Remind seniors they should not take opioids with alcohol and other medications such as benzodiazepines, muscle relaxants, sleep medications (hypnotics) or other prescription opioids

To learn more about opioids and older adults, watch this webinar. Senior care professionals can earn a free Continuing Education (CE) credit*. More information about medication management can be found at To learn more about home care services and to find a local home care provider visit

The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

*CE credits are only available for 60 days following the live webinar event.

Author: Lakelyn Hogan, MA, MBA, Gerontologist and Caregiver Advocate, Home Instead®

Last revised: May 9, 2019

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