NILES — Much of the news coverage of the opioid crisis has focused on young people at risk for addiction and overdose.

But senior citizens also are vulnerable to abuse and misuse of pain medications, and can play a role in stopping the flow of pills into the wrong hands.

“Pain medication is a necessity,” said Kerri Teachout, a retired substance abuse prevention specialist with the Berrien County Health Department now working as a consultant. “But we need to be careful how we use it, and how we store it. Safety is first and necessity is second.”

Teachout spoke Wednesday to residents of the Four Flags Plaza in Niles, as part of a program created through a $54,000 grant from the Area Agency on Aging. More presentations are scheduled throughout the summer in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

There are reasons that older residents need to be educated on opioid use, Teachout said. More than 80 percent of older adults use at least one prescription medication daily, and half use five or more medications. This puts seniors at an increased risk of adverse drug interactions, she said.

The number of elderly patients receiving opioid prescriptions increased nine times between 1996 to 2010, according to Psychiatric Times, and 35 percent of people over the age of 50 report that they have misused this category of drug in the last 30 days, causing the hospitalization rate for misuse to increase five-fold over the last two decades.

Thirty percent of seniors experience chronic pain, which is often treated with a range of opioid drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin, Teachout said. Those drugs slow down the nerves that feel pain, and increase the release of dopamine to the pleasure centers of the brain.

Signs of overuse of opioids include an increased tolerance, requiring higher doses; physical dependence; increased sensitivity to pain; constipation, nausea and vomiting; sleepiness and dizziness; itching and sweating; and depression.

Dependence means the person feels like they can’t function without the drug, and that they physically need it whether it is helping or not, Teachout explained.

Addiction is the last phase of dependence, in which the person uses larger amounts for longer than they intended, Teachout said. A person who is addicted will continue to use despite social and personal problems, and will experience strong cravings and use prescriptions not written for them.

Out of sight

Many people – particularly young people – start using opioids that were taken from the medicine cabinets of family members.

Society is awash in these pills. Teachout showed state statistics that report that there are an average of 138 pain pills in every Berrien County household, and that there are 55 opioid pills per each resident.

She called those numbers “scary.” She also confessed to doing what many people do after being prescribed pain pills – leaving the remainder on the shelf.

Teachout recommended that medications not be stored in the bathroom medicine cabinet, which is the first place someone wanting to steal pills will look. Any medications that can be habit-forming should be locked up in a cool, dry place in the original container, she said.

She also urged people to dispose of unneeded medications at drop-off locations available at pharmacies and police departments in Baroda-Lake Township, Buchanan, Chikaming Township, Coloma Township, Watervliet, New Buffalo and Niles. Berrien County also holds collection events, with the next one from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at the New Buffalo Township Fire Station.

The packet provided to participants included a Deterra drug deactivation pouch for drugs, that can neutralize up to 15 pills or two ounces of liquid medication with warm water and then be thrown away.

Teachout recommended that seniors talk to their doctors about their medications, how they should be taking them and whether they can be safely used with other prescriptions. The information packet included a personal medication record for individuals to keep track of their own prescriptions, and to share during emergencies.

“Don’t play Russian Roulette with your medications,” Teachout said.

For anyone experiencing drug abuse or addiction, Teachout recommended seeking help through Carol’s Hope, at 4032 S. M-139 in Royalton Township (near the True Value hardware store), which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide support and counseling. They can be reached at 556-1527.

Alternatives to pain meds include acupuncture, chiropractors, physical therapy, meditation, massage and yoga, she offered.

“Anybody can do yoga,” Teachout said.

The goal of the program, Teachout said, is to help seniors prevent any harmful consequences of pain medication use, such as an emergency room visit or hospital stay.

“We want to help you manage your pain a little better, so you can do what you want to do,” Teachout said.

Contact:, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak