Finding Help for Seniors Addicted to Opioids


I'm worried about my 72-year-old mom who has been taking Vicodin—an opioid medication—for her hip and back pain for more than a year. I fear she's becoming addicted to the drug but I don't know what to do.
Opioid addiction is a national problem that is hitting people of all ages, including millions of older Americans. Here is what you should know and do to help your mom.

The Cause

The main reason opioid addiction has become such a problem for people over age 50 is because opioids have become a commonly prescribed (and often overprescribed) medication by doctors over the past two decades. It is being used to treat many different types of pain and diseases, including arthritis, cancer, neurological diseases and other illnesses that become more common in later life. Nearly one-third of all Medicare patients—almost 12 million people—were prescribed opioid painkillers by their physicians in 2015. That same year, 2.7 million Americans over the age of 50 abused painkillers. Taken as directed, opioids can manage pain effectively when used for a short amount of time. However, because nearly 5% of those treated will develop an addiction or abuse the opioid medication, people should be screened and monitored when using an opioid for a long period of time.

Signs of Addiction

Your mom may be addicted to opioids if she cannot stop herself from taking the drug and her tolerance continues to increase. She may also be addicted if she keeps using opioids without her doctor's consent, even if it is causing her problems related to her health, money, family or friends. If you think your mom has an addiction, ask her to see a doctor for an evaluation. Go to a family doctor, her prescribing physician or find a specialist through the American Society of Addiction Medicine (see or the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry ( It is also important to be positive and encouraging. Addiction is a medical matter, not a character flaw. Repeated use of opioids actually can change the way the brain functions.


Treatment for opioid addiction is different for each person, but the main goal is to enable your mom to stop taking the drug and avoid using it again in the future. To help her stop using the drug, her doctor can prescribe certain medicines to help relieve her withdrawal symptoms and control her cravings. These medicines include methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. After her body detoxifies, behavioral treatments such as individual counseling, group or family counseling and cognitive therapy can help her learn how to manage depression, avoid the drug, deal with cravings and heal damaged relationships. For assistance, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confidential help line at 800-662-4357 or visit The SAMHSA has individuals who can connect you with treatment services in your mom's state. Also, if you believe that your mom has a doctor who prescribes opioids in excess or without legitimate reason, you should report him or her to the appropriate state medical board. For contact information visit Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living” book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization’s official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.


Published August 4, 2017

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