Heroin Abuse and Elder Abuse

In the Spring of 2014, fresh from the successful creation of the Arlington Elder Abuse Prevention Task Force, the Elder Abuse Prevention Project (EAPP)  moved on to help set up a similar elder abuse prevention coalition in the town of Woburn.  There were over a dozen community stakeholders present at the first meeting, and as we went around the table most of the providers thought that financial exploitation was the primary issue that we should focus on.  When we got to a group of four elderly women sitting together, I was initially shocked when they suggested that heroin addiction was truly the most important issue.  They went on to describe how the lives of their friends and family had been devastated by the heroin crisis, which has hit Massachusetts particularly hard.  Since that first meeting, EAPP has heard numerous stories in other communities about the interconnection of elder abuse and the opioid abuse epidemic.

The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse has identified substance abuse as the most frequently cited risk factor associated with elder abuse and neglect.[1]  This includes perpetrators who have substance abuse problems and may engage in physical mistreatment, emotional abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect. This also includes elders themselves who abuse substances which may lead to self-neglecting behavior.

The cases that we have worked on and the stories that we have heard range from grandchildren stealing medications, money, and valuables from their grandparents to adult children moving back into their elderly parents homes and physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing them.  One of our clients was taken advantage of by a grandchild who had become addicted to heroin, but kept this part of her life a secret from her family.  She moved in with her grandmother and proceeded to run up her credit cards, steal money and jewelry, and bring groups of people into her home which threatened her tenancy.  Despite all of this, it was extremely difficult for the elder to turn her granddaughter away – in trying to help her granddaughter, she put her housing, income, and emotional health at risk.  This is just one story out of countless other stories in which an elder is harmed as the result of a family member’s heroin addiction.  As our state and local officials continue to grapple with this critical issue, it is important to remember that heroin abuse and its consequences is not just a young person’s issue.  Heroin abuse has a far reaching and long lasting effect on all members of our communities including our seniors.

[1] The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse; “Elder Abuse and Substance Abuse” 2013


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