Reading heartbreaking obituaries of young people has informed the view many of us have of the opioid epidemic, which is killing more than a person a day in Maine as well as ruining countless lives.

But the full dimension of this public health emergency is more complicated than even those tragic stories would lead us to believe, and it will be more difficult to address.

Not only are young people just starting out in life getting derailed by addiction, but their elderly relatives are falling prey as well.

Years of overprescribing painkillers to older Americans has resulted in the spread of dependence and overdose in places where few people were looking. Elderly Mainers may not be buying drugs in dark alleys or shooting up in public places, but they face the same risk of addiction and death when regular use becomes part of their lives.

This fuller picture of the opioid epidemic was the subject of a public hearing at Sen. Susan Collins’ subcommittee on aging in Washington last week.

Collins has authored two bills to address these issues: the Safe Disposal of Unused Medication Act and the Opioid Peer Support Networks Act, which would create an information clearinghouse to support local groups of people helping each other get off drugs. Older people with drug problems have many of the same problems faced by their younger counterparts, but they also have dangers that are specific to their age. For instance, the drugs increase the risk of falling, which can be a death sentence for someone who takes blood thinners or has brittle bones.

Suddenly stopping use of the medication or tapering off them too quickly can throw older people with a drug dependence into a life-threatening siezure.

And the likelihood that there may be drugs in their homes (one in three Medicare enrollees received an opiod prescription in 2016) makes them targets for crime, either by strangers or family members and caregivers. Collins’ bills, which complement tougher regulation on prescribers, will be a step in the right direction. But the opioid crisis, especially where senior citizens are concerned, began with overprescription of painkillers and as the prescription drugs become less available, the medical community should take on the responsibility of undoing what it has done.

In addition to drug treatment, better pain management and mental health services are needed if we are not just going to replace one form of suffering with another.


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