Calling their findings an “untold story,” the National Council on Aging (NCOA) said a recent survey they conducted reveals that the opioid crisis in the United States is eroding the quality of life for many older adults and derailing efforts by local organizations to serve them.

“Older Americans are being harmed by the opioid crisis on all sides,” said Anna Maria Chávez, NCOA executive vice president and chief growth officer. She says this is because some older adults are struggling with the personal tragedy of opioid addiction, while others are having to financially support their opioid-addicted children and even become caregivers for their grandchildren.

“This is hurting their health, draining their life savings, and destroying their financial security,” she said.

NCOA surveyed more than 200 community-based organizations in the aging network from 40 states and Puerto Rico. Among respondents, 70 percent reported an increased effort spent addressing issues related to the opioid epidemic affecting their older adult clients or their caregivers compared with two years ago.

Meanwhile, 20 percent said they have had to increase their opioid-related efforts by at least a quarter, and some reported increasing their efforts by more than 50 percent.

Despite this increase, only 28 percent of those surveyed said they routinely screen for substance misuse and abuse among the older adults they serve.

“More than 80 percent of the organizations responding to our survey reported that their older clients have little knowledge of safe and affordable alternatives to opioids, nor the best way to store and dispose of them. Now is the time to invest resources in educating older adults and the professionals who serve them on these critical issues,” Chávez said.

NCOA said the opioid epidemic is also affecting older adults both physically and financially, with the survey showing:
■ 84 percent of respondents said their older clients have become more reliant on federal benefits;
■ 81 percent said older adults do not understand safe, effective, and affordable alternatives to reducing pain without prescription opioid medications;
■ 80 percent said older adults faced challenges in obtaining needed prescriptions or refills for opioid pain medication because of increased scrutiny and/or changing prescribing patterns; and
■ 80 percent said their older clients reported theft of pain medication by family members or others who use it for themselves to sell.

“The aging network, social services, and health care providers—as well as behavioral health care systems—all need to join forces now to advocate for a coordinated approach to solve the range of opioid issues affecting older adults and their families,” Chávez said.

To help remedy the problem, NCOA made several recommendations, including:
■ Improving the health literacy of older adults and their caregivers regarding appropriate opioid use;
■ Offering older adults alternative approaches to opioid medication to manage chronic pain;
■ Incorporating the older adult perspective in opioid efforts at the national, state, and local levels;
■ Raising awareness of the risk factors for financial fraud and abuse;
■ Educating older adults about public benefits and legal options; and
■ Mobilizing multiple service providers.