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Baby Boomers and the Opioid Epidemic

Posted by: Dr. Robin Barnett,

The national opioid epidemic is indisputable, with headlines like 200% increase in opioid-related deaths plastered across newspaper and television news with increasing frequency. Yet the stereotypical picture of who these numbers represent tend to stay fixed on younger people, probably those hanging out in questionable areas with less-than-ideal companions.

But your mom or dad, friend, or coworker? No way.

Unfortunately, that is simply not true. Baby Boomers have carved out a significant portion of opioid addictions and deaths, now more than ever.

The New Numbers

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that between 2000 and 2013, the number of heroin-involved deaths in people ages 45 to 64 quintupled. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed a 303% increase in prescription opioid–related deaths in the same time. This includes common pain medications such as codeine, Lortab, and OxyCodone. And in 2012 alone, nearly 260 million prescriptions were written— enough for one bottle of pills for every American adult.

And perhaps more frighteningly, nearly 75% of the people who had been prescribed opioid medications for legitimate pain issues and began abusing the drugs eventually turned to heroin as a cheaper way to get both pain relief and the high they craved.

Chronic pain is a frequent condition for which these drugs are prescribed, an issue that tends to target those in the Baby Boomer age range. And this population receives more prescriptions than any other.

Two Types of Boomers Who Get Hooked on Opioids

Of addicted Boomers, two types have emerged. The first is those who have no history of drug abuse or addiction and began with a legitimate prescription for some medical issue, but became addicted to the powerful drugs. Their bodies build up a tolerance to OxyCodone, for instance, and the dose they were initially prescribed no longer touches their pain. Many simply take higher doses without consulting their doctor first, perhaps figuring that it a little more won’t hurt. This trend continues until they are dependent on the drug to feel like they can function normally.

In short, they are addicted.

Then, either the prescription becomes too expensive, or the drug just doesn’t alleviate their pain, and they look to other sources. Heroin is readily available and more affordable than prescription opioids, and seems like a viable answer to someone whose mind now functions under the cloud of addiction.

The second type of person does have a history of drug use, abuse, or addiction. Perhaps when they were younger in the 1960s or ’70s and the culture embraced experimentation, they tried whatever came their way. Perhaps they started smoking marijuana back then and just kept taking it. Maybe it was cocaine or even LSD. While these non-opioid drugs don’t function, biologically speaking, in the same way, the foundation for abuse and addiction was laid, so transferring to a new drug—even one prescribed to them—is much easier.

Treating Opioid-Addicted Baby Boomers

Considering appropriate treatment for Baby Boomers addicted to opioids is more nuanced than your average drug treatment program, though.

Because they may have legitimate medical issues at the core, simply taking them off pain medication altogether is complicated and potentially dangerous. Figuring out how to treat the addiction, while still acknowledging the underlying physical pain requires an experienced clinician. Seeking out a treatment provider with experience in this specific area with this specific demographic is vitally important for the safety and care of the client.

Part of this treatment protocol may well involve the treatment modality known as Motivational Interviewing (MI). Research has shown that this type of treatment has been particularly effective in curbing the opioid epidemic in Baby Boomers with chronic pain.

A clinician using MI will work with a client to uncover any personal motivation for getting well and staying well. It is a gentle, non-confrontational approach that encourages clients to reclaim a sense of self-efficacy in choosing behaviors that reflect their personal motivation to use their medications appropriately. Treatment providers ask clients to think about the circumstances under which they misuse their medication and identify healthier coping skills during these times that do not involve abusing opioids.

Clients who have used MI in treating their opioid addiction say they feel more confident in their ability to use their medication properly, and report less depression and anxiety as well.

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Dr. Robin Barnett is a revered behavioral health expert, certified sex addiction expert and former CEO of Park Bench Group Counseling, a progressive addiction rehabilitation facility in Northfield, New Jersey, which she co-founded in 2006 and sold in 2014.

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