Senior citizens deal with significantly more pain than any other age group, partly because of ailments related to the aging process, and partly because they’ve had more time to acquire painful injuries and conditions than younger folks. Opioids have long been the standard prescription for dealing with pain in the United States. Because seniors suffer most, they also get prescribed the most – which has created a crisis of sorts among the senior population. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, hospitalizations for opioid overuse increased most sharply among Americans ages 45 to 85 and beyond, with rates rising more than five fold between 1993 and 2012.

Oftentimes, over-the-counter pain medicine works just fine to alleviate minor discomfort or pain. However, in cases of chronic pain or injury, a doctor may prescribe opioids. Such medications are also prescribed heavily following invasive medical procedures or surgeries. Always consult a physician before taking any medication so you understand specifically what it is for and how it works. You may also want to inquire about alternative options to pain medication if the pain is not severe and is relatively tolerable.

Painkillers are intended for short-term use, as they can be highly addictive. Research suggests half of those 65 or older experience chronic non-cancer pain that has lasted more than a year. As a result, seniors have a greater chance of being prescribed pain meds. Unfortunately, the side effects and potential for addiction with prescription painkillers knows no age limit.

If you are prescribed pain medication, it is important to know possible side effects and to follow the doctor’s orders. Pain medications can have adverse reactions with other medicines, so be careful. If you are still unsure after being prescribed painkillers, ask your pharmacist or physician about any potential negative interactions. And never drink alcohol when taking pain medication.

Risk of Falling

Because opioids depress the central nervous system, patients, regardless of age, are at risk for falling. The issue is even more important for seniors, as many already have mobility and bone density issues. Boomers and seniors should take extra precaution when moving, including getting in and out of bed, using stairs or showering. Pain medication may make you dizzy or light-headed, so ask for help getting around.  Even if your elderly loved one already receives senior care such as home health or lives at an assisted living facility, it is very important that you inform their provider about the risk of falling due to opioids.


Pain medication may cause drowsiness and grogginess, which can cloud judgment. For safety, patients should not be driving a vehicle or engaging in any strenuous physical activity for the duration of the prescription. If they are watching grandchildren, it might be wise to pass along the responsibility to someone else when they are medicated. Something that is especially important for the elderly is that they do not make any significant legal decisions while under the effects of heavy prescriptions. In addition, pain meds may cause nausea and vomiting, especially for those with limited experience with narcotics.


Opioids slow down the digestive tract. As a result, patients often times experience indigestion or difficulty with bowel movements. It is recommended to drink more water and increase dietary fiber to counteract the side effect. If stomach problems persist, contact your doctor, as chronic constipation can lead to further abdominal pain or even a visit to the emergency room.


Prescriptions for pain pills are usually written so as to be taken as needed, not on a set schedule as are most other medications. Therefore, before you take a pill, ask yourself about your level of pain and if the medicine is truly necessary at the time. Taking too much of a medication, or taking it too soon after the last dose, can get patients into trouble. The worry is of becoming addicted, so the primary goal should be to get off medication that is meant to be temporary as soon as possible.

Security and Disposing

Due to the serious mind-altering effects of pain meds, be sure to keep them in a safe place. You might even consider keeping them under lock and key to prevent children and grandchildren from getting into them accidentally. Lockboxes also prevent theft. It is illegal to share your medication with anyone, even family. Sharing medication can have severe consequences, because you do not know how it will affect another person’s body, and there are serious legal repercussions for doing so.

It is never wise to leave unused or expired medication around the house, especially opioids. If you have extra pain pills left, be sure to discard them safely. The Drug Enforcement Agency sponsors an annual National Prescription Take Back Day, giving the community an opportunity to safely discard medication of any kind. In addition, some pharmacies offer programs to accept unused or expired medication by working with local law enforcement agencies.


The elderly are the most at-risk age group for prescription drug abuse, in large part, because they simply take more medication than any other age demographic does. There are many signs of addiction. Patients may try to get multiple prescriptions from different doctors, become focused on a particular medication or take more medicine than is prescribed. Caregivers should look for withdrawing or angry behavioral changes, hidden pills or made up excuses for why he or she needs more medicine. If you suspect someone is addicted, seek help as soon as possible.

“Understanding the Opioid Crisis Among Senior Citizens,” by Bryan K. with Senior Directory