Agencies working with senior centers on opioid crisis

Older adults are becoming addicted, overdosing or unintentionally giving young people access to pills.

STANWOOD — Barbara Oczkewicz didn’t think that the opioid epidemic people were buzzing about on the news had reached its ugly fingers into her life.

Then she went to a presentation at the Stanwood Community and Senior Center, where she lives as well as volunteers. The topic was opioid use among older adults. Seniors are becoming addicted, overdosing or unintentionally giving younger relatives access to pills.

“I was very naive to it,” said Oczkewicz, 72. “You use what the doctor tells you to and you get better and then you’re done; that’s what I thought. But there are those who don’t.”

She learned that opioid abuse, namely overuse or misuse of prescription pain medication, is a problem among seniors. While the face of the epidemic tends to be young heroin addicts, the reality is that this crisis spans ages and backgrounds. Drug abuse might look different in the older population, but it can be just as dangerous.

That’s why senior centers around Snohomish County are teaching people strategies for recognition and prevention.

At the start of the year, county officials contacted 14 centers, including Stanwood’s.

“They said, ‘We have a problem here,’ ” center director Julie Vess recalled.

Hospital data showed that seniors in Snohomish County were overdosing and updated numbers continue to raise concerns.

There were 100 overdose-related visits to Providence Everett’s emergency department between June 1 and Aug. 31, according to a Snohomish Health District report. While more than half of the patients were between 25 and 40 years old, another 25 were between 41 and 60, and four were older than 60.

Fifteen of the hundred overdoses involved prescription pain medication, either alone or mixed with another substance such as alcohol. Nine of the patients said they were using medicine for chronic pain and three said their use was related to cancer.

“It’s not just the homeless drug addict on the street. It can be anyone,” Vess said. “With the older adult population, it is a significant issue. We need to do everything we can.”

The senior centers agreed to host two educational events each in 2017. They brought in experts such as emergency responders and medical workers. There have been forums, classes and health fairs, as well as “take back” events to safely dispose of unused pills. Plans are in place to train nurses in senior centers on the use of naloxone, also known as Narcan, which can be administered to reverse the effects of an overdose.

Vess doesn’t know of any overdoses at the Stanwood senior center, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, she said. When residents of the senior apartments call for emergency aid, she doesn’t get details on the type of emergency.

County leaders recently rolled out a plan to treat opioid abuse as a crisis. Coordination is key, said Shari Ireton, spokeswoman for the county sheriff’s office. The response doesn’t necessarily require a lot of additional money, but rather taking inventory of resources and working together to make the most of them.

That means taking a close look at who is affected, young and old.

Oczkewicz has taken pain medication before, for surgeries that were only two months apart. She was wary of the pills and stopped taking them as soon as she was able, she said.

At the presentation in Stanwood, she heard that sometimes patients get multiple prescriptions from different doctors, either on purpose or by accident because they’ve had multiple injuries or surgeries. People might take double doses because their pain seems to be worsening, or they can’t remember whether they took their pills earlier in the day.

“They think, ‘Maybe I’d better take another one just in case. I don’t want to be in pain,’ ” Vess said. “It’s an easy mistake to make.”

Oczkewicz now understands the importance of storing and disposing of medications safely, and of watching for signs that loved ones might have a problem.

“My eyes opened up so I could be aware of other people like family or friends who would be taking dual doses or be on it too long,” she said.

She plans to go to the next presentation, which has yet to be scheduled.

As senior centers finalize budgets and calendars for 2018, the plan is for each to put on at least two more events, Vess said.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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