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Opioids and Elder Abuse: A Disquieting Connection

By Pamela B. Teaster, Ph.D. and Karen A. Roberto, Ph.D., Center for Gerontology, Virginia Tech Robert Blancato, M.P.A, Brian W. Lindberg, MMHS, and Meredith Whitmire, J.D., Elder Justice Coalition

March 04, 2019


Older adults are an important but frequently forgotten generation that is affected by the opioid crisis in America.  As a group, older adults often have multiple chronic conditions and endure high rates of chronic pain. Opioids and related prescription and non-prescription drugs are frequently the treatment of choice for these individuals.

Further, the opioid crisis has harmed older adults through the addiction of their children, grandchildren, and others who rely on them for money, child care, food, shelter, and the like. Directly or inadvertently, older adults may be stripped of their resources and quality of life because of the struggles of those around them—and may be highly susceptible to elder abuse.

In late 2017, researchers from Virginia Tech (Pamela B. Teaster and Karen A. Roberto) and the Elder Justice Coalition (Brian W. Lindberg and Robert Blancato) conducted 4 one-hour focus group interviews with 20 selected representatives from involved stakeholders in four states and counties where deaths from opioids were the highest (Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia). The goal of the project was to investigate whether the relationship between increasing high rates of opioid use and elder abuse was a real problem “on the ground,” its scope, and available data.

Overall, focus group participants reported that the problem is escalating in scope and severity. Elder financial exploitation was the predominant form of abuse.

For example, in Kentucky, a grandson who had a heroin addiction went to live with his elderly grandfather.  The grandfather had a diagnosis of dementia, and the grandson exploited the grandfather for money ($85,000) to support his heroin addiction. The grandson was taking money out of the grandfather’s debit card, writing checks to his friends, and opening credit cards in his grandfather’s name–all in an effort to support his addiction.

Participants also indicated that when desperate perpetrators had gone through the money, the drugs, or both, older adults were psychologically and physically abused.  Their abusers isolated the older adults in their own homes so that they could not reach out to others to help them.

The focus group findings revealed that the problem is not just limited to home settings. Participants also reported that older adults are being exploited in facility settings, including hospice and nursing homes.

In brief, focus group participants strongly believed that the opioid crisis is contributing to cases of elder abuse.  Across the four groups, participants:

  1. Stated that the problem is increasing in severity;
  2. Estimated a 25-35% increase in drug-related exploitation cases;
  3. Stressed that there is a dangerous lack of resources to help with drug-related cases of elder abuse;
  4. Confirmed that there is no reliable, retrievable data to document the scope of the problem across states.

In other words, the time is now to enhance our understanding of the connection between opioids and elder abuse. Ultimately, this information will assist in designing effective prevention and intervention efforts to address this escalating and highly dangerous problem.

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