Pain is a major quality of life factor for millions of seniors. Make it a top priority as you arrange care for a loved one.
When it was announced that the great music icon Prince had passed away due to a drug overdose, many people assumed his case was similar to the many young rockers who met an early death due to substance abuse. Yet as the details emerged, it became apparent that Prince’s case was not so different from many other people older than 55 (Prince was 57) who run afoul of the opioid medications they use to control pain. Though Prince had a reputation for “clean living,” he suffered from chronic hip pain, most likely from his athletic performing style, and struggled with the medications he took to try to control that pain. It was reported that Prince was scheduled to begin an opioid treatment program shortly, but it was tragically too late for him.
This high-profile case helped bring into the public eye the recent focus on the opioid epidemic in America. Here is a startling statistic: After years of rising steadily, the life expectancy for Americans recently declined slightly, and demographers attribute this in part to the effects of opioid abuse. The American Public Health Association reports that the economic burden from opioid abuse totals $78.5 billion each year.
There has been a shift in the way many doctors talk about the use of these drugs for pain treatment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says opioids can be very effective and safe in treating some types of chronic and acute pain—but they can have serious side effects. And while many doctors used to assure patients that “if you’re using opioids for pain, you won’t become addicted,” they now recognize that even patients who use these drugs for the pain of arthritis, osteoporosis, back pain, shingles or other conditions can develop a dangerous dependency. It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explore the complex issue of addiction, but suffice it say that doctors and pharmacists today are under a greater amount of scrutiny when it comes to prescribing these drugs, so it may be harder for pain patients to get them when they really need them.
The other half of the story is that medications are far from the only tools doctors have for treating pain. According to the American Geriatrics Society, pain is often poorly evaluated and managed in senior patients. It’s important not to assume that nothing can be done, or that pain is “just a part of growing older.” If pain is affecting the quality of life of your senior loved one, he or she should be thoroughly evaluated for non-drug therapies and lifestyle changes that might be recommended—physical therapy, massage, exercise, regional anesthesia, relaxation training, yoga and biofeedback, to name a few. It’s important to address pain as soon as possible. Acute pain can evolve into intractable, hard-to-treat chronic pain. A cycle can set in where pain causes inflammation, which in turn creates more pain, and so on.
Professional home care helps seniors manage painful conditions
Today more seniors prefer to receive care in their own home. If your family uses, or is thinking about using, home care services, make pain control a top goal if this is an issue for your loved one. Skilled nursing services can be provided in the home if your loved one requires that level of care. This can include administration and management of medications, rehabilitative therapy, disease management and wound care.
Non medical home care services, which can be provided at a lower cost, also support optimum pain control:
Healthcare management—Good pain management often includes multiple appointments with multiple experts to figure out the cause and best treatment of pain. There might be a slew of ongoing appointments and treatments with a pain specialist, physical therapy or tai chi. If your loved one can’t drive, getting to these appointments can be a real challenge! The caregiver can help keep track of appointments, provide transportation, and accompany your loved one to their various specialists and classes.
Help with medications—Medications can be an important part of pain control—but whether opioid or other types, it’s very important to take them correctly. The caregiver can provide transportation to the pharmacy, and help your loved one remember to take medications at the right time and as directed. Many medications—alone or in combination with others—can cause harmful side effects, some of which can even increase a person’s pain. Your loved one might not even be aware that this is happening. The caregiver can be alert for any problems.
Supervision during physical activity—Exercise is frequently “prescribed” to help control chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis and lower back pain. Exercise causes the body to release natural pain killers that reduce discomfort. It lubricates the joints and improves overall health and strength. But seniors might be nervous about working out, especially if they have fallen or experience a degree of pain with movement. It’s important to get a personalized exercise prescription from the doctor. The caregiver can supervise home exercises, provide transportation to exercise classes, and provide all-around support—most of us do better with a cheerleader!
Personal care—In-home caregivers assist with bathing, dressing, incontinence care, grooming and other personal care tasks. A trained caregiver will know how to perform these tasks in a way that minimizes discomfort for clients. Caregivers also provide housekeeping (that might include keeping medications out of the reach of small children or curious teens) and can prepare nutritious meals that support health and raise the spirits.
Companionship—Seniors who are dealing with painful health conditions can find themselves homebound, isolated and depressed. Loneliness itself is a very painful state of being for humans—and has been found to dramatically increase the level of a person’s physical pain, as well. Pain can lead to social withdrawal, which in turn increases pain. The caregiver is a source of human companionship around the home, and can take your loved one to social activities they enjoy, such as their clubs or faith community.
Dementia care—If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or a related condition, detecting and treating pain can be extra challenging. The caregiver can report signs that your loved one is experiencing pain, as well as providing companionship and appropriate activities and physical activity to help control pain.
Choosing the right caregiver
When arranging for care for a loved one who is dealing with chronic pain issues, look for an agency which performs background checks and provides training for the caregiver they will send to support your loved one’s well-being. This will not only provide the best pain management for your loved one—but will provide welcome peace of mind for family.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released a brochure “What to Ask Your Doctor Before Taking Opioids”
The American Geriatrics Society offers an overview of the diagnosis and treatment of pain in older adults in their HealthinAging.org consumer website.
Also in this issue: Take a coffee break and give your brain a workout with the “Fighting Pain” wordfind.
Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.