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“I think just our society, we're finally coming to the recognition that this is an issue,” said Peggy Herbeck, supervisor at the Aging Disability Resource Center of La Crosse County.
Attorney General Brad Schimel's new task force on elder abuse targets opioid misuse among senior citizens, and according to Schimel, last year, more than 4,000 people 55 or older in Wisconsin went to the hospital for opioid dependence or poisoning.
“Boy, that was surprising to me,” Herbeck said. "In the past, we wouldn't have realized it was an opioid issue. Maybe we would've put it off to more a casual, 'Oh, the person made a mistake on their prescription.'"
Dr. Chris Eberlein of Gundersen Health system thinks that 4,000 figure doesn't tell the whole story.
"The numbers they're not catching are the elderly patient that took the opiate and fell down,” he said, adding that eldery opioid misuse is a local issue, but not necessarily in the same way it is for the younger population.
"A lot of your seniors are not purposely trying to abuse these drugs,” Eberlein said.
Instead, he said seniors may get confused on their dose, or have more exaggerated reactions to opioids because of their age or interactions with other medications.
But of course, seniors can be addicted as well.
"These are the patients we've really got to get help because they're at much higher risk of these poisonings as well,” Eberlein said.
Dr. Eberlein advises patients to make sure their doctors know of all the drugs they’re taking. He also thinks it’s a good idea for seniors to have Narcan on hand when they go home with opioid prescriptions.
"We all have to work together on this issue,” Herbeck said.
She believes it’s important for everyone to work with their physicians to make sure their prescriptions are at the right dose.
Herbeck said the increased information about opioids' potential dangers also makes a difference.
"Just this last week I had conversation with two different people, young elders, who decided not to ask for any type of a narcotic painkiller,” she said. “(They) asked their physician, isn't there something else they could be prescribed?”
According to the attorney general, a statewide prevention campaign called Dose of Reality will be providing information and resources for senior centers and elder healthcare facilities on opioid issues. More information can be found here.
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Opioid misuse also an issue among elders