Aging secretary hosts forum on opioid crisis' impact on seniors

For Deborih Lewis, it started benignly enough.

The 63-year-old West Scranton woman was working as a nurse’s aide about five years ago when a doctor prescribed her Vicodin for her bad back.

By her own admission, she began taking more of the opioid painkillers than she should have, eventually downing as many as 15 a day. It finally caught up with her last year when, over the course of six days, she overdosed twice and had to be administered naloxone each time to bring her back.

“It’s a scary place to be,” Ms. Lewis said.

Ms. Lewis shared her story Wednesday at United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s West Side Active Older Adult Community Center, where state Department of Aging Secretary Teresa Osborne hosted a discussion on the risks posed to seniors by prescription drugs and the broadening opioid crisis.

The nearly hour-long roundtable brought together a dozen local public officials and service providers to talk about the impact of opioid and prescription drug abuse on older citizens and to share their ideas for combating the issue.

With an average of 10 state residents dying every day from overdoses, the crisis affects all Pennsylvanians, including seniors, either directly or indirectly, Ms. Osborne said.

“This epidemic does not discriminate,” she said. “Whether you are young or old, black or white, it doesn’t matter. It touches all of our lives.”

Lackawanna County District Attorney Shane Scanlon, who pointed out three of four heroin users start out abusing prescription medication, called for more education and awareness. For many years, education was not a priority, and that played a role in allowing the epidemic to develop, he said.

“There are many different people now stepping up to the plate, and I think we all have to continue to do so,” he said.

Doug Albertson, center director for Dunmore Comprehensive Treatment Center, spoke of the need to eliminate the stigma associated with opioid addiction. Rather than addicts or junkies, they are individuals suffering from a dependency “and we need to get them off of that,” he said.

“We need to get rid of the stigma. We need to not judge as much as we do,” Mr. Albertson said.

Ms. Osborne opened the discussion by noting addiction often starts not on the street but in the medicine cabinet. Caseworkers visiting the homes of older Pennsylvanians commonly find cabinets filled with unused, expired prescription drugs that can too easily find their way into the hands of a child, grandchild or other family member, she said.

“We need to ensure we are educating our seniors about what to do with those unused, expired, unwanted medications before they get misdirected,” she said.

Attorney Nancy Barrasse, solicitor for the county Area Agency on Aging, told Ms. Osborne seniors need options to properly dispose of those drugs that are simple and don’t involve “a lot of red tape.”

“We need a common sense way to get rid of these medications,” Ms. Barrasse said.

Senior Donna Hunter told the roundtable how her son became addicted to drugs more than 30 years ago when she allowed him to live with someone else while she was hospitalized. He has been in and out of jail ever since, she said, repeatedly stealing to support his habit as he progressed from prescription opioids to heroin.

“It’s my fault. If I didn’t let him go, he wouldn’t have got involved. I blame myself,” Ms. Hunter said.

Ms. Osborne and other roundtable participants quickly reassured Ms. Hunter she is not to blame.

Bo Hoban, Lackawanna-Susquehanna Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs administrator, said her story points to the need for tangible services for the families of people struggling with addiction so they know they are “not in this alone and it’s not their fault.”

“Right now, the system is devoid of any kind of support services and education for family members,” he said.

Ms. Lewis, who sought help after her second overdose at Clearbrook Treatment Centers and was discharged about two months ago, left the roundtable with another cautionary note.

When she was hospitalized recently for another illness, the hospital surprisingly suggested Vicodin for her pain, which she said she should not have been offered based on her history and which she immediately refused.

“You’ve got to be careful,” Ms. Lewis said. “You don’t know what they are giving you, and you don’t know what you’re getting. All it takes is one pill.”



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