Opioid crisis haunts Brevard’s seniors


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According to the Drug Policy Alliance, overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. It’s becoming a growing concern for members of Brevard County’s 55-plus community, too.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released earlier this month stated that 70,237 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017. Approximately two-thirds of these deaths involved opioids.

The New York Times reported that as of 2010 between six and eight million American senior citizens battled a substance abuse or mental health disorder. The Psychiatric Times estimates that approximately a quarter of all prescription drugs in America are sold to elderly people and nearly 11 percent might abuse their medications.

The statistics are grim in Florida, too. The Florida Department of Health reported that the rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids has increased 200 percent. Brevard County is No. 6 on The Recovery Center’s list of the top 10 Florida counties for drug overdose deaths. It found that Space Coast residents are 44 percent more likely to die of an opioid-related overdose than the average American.

“We are losing three to four people a week in Brevard County,” said Dr. Kanti Bhalani, the founder and medical director of the Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation.

Drug abuse tends to be associated with teenagers and young adults, but Bhalani has noticed that the disorder is occurring in people ages 20 to 35 and 65 and older. Substance abuse doesn’t always begin with experimentation either. Patients might visit a doctor and be given a prescription for opioid medication. It can take only two to three weeks of use for a patient’s brain chemistry to change and then he or she can become addicted, he said.

Bhalani retired after 35 years as a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist in Titusville. Through the course of his career, he saw more and more mothers struggle with substance abuse disorders. He became the director of a methadone clinic and later founded the Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation to help people overcome their disorders and reclaim their lives.

The Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation is on a mission to prevent opioid drug overdoses and suicides. The organization was founded in 2003 and has operated a rehabilitation and research center in Palm Bay for four years that treats five to six patients every day. This summer, the Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation will open a new treatment center in Titusville. It also will begin providing treatment for hepatitis C and HIV.

Signs of a substance abuse disorder in a senior include loss of appetite, emotional instability, excessive sleeping, unsteadiness, defensiveness and memory lapses. The person might fake illnesses or claim medication was lost or used to get more. It can be hard to spot symptoms because the symptoms can overlap normal ailments associated with aging or because the person might downplay or hide the problem.

Abstinence only works for 15 to 20 percent of patients with substance abuse disorders. Most need medication and therapy. However, there are 2.5 million people struggling with addiction and only 2 percent are getting any help at all, Bhalani said.

The Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation offers a program called Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), which combines behavior therapy, counseling and medications that are Food and Drug Administration approved for use by patients with opioid-use disorders. Opioid withdrawal symptoms and the desire to use opioids can be reduced with MAT and the risk of patient death is cut in half, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Social support is critical to a patient’s success, so family members are included in the program. Other issues also might be addressed such as locating housing for homeless patients. Bhalani has seen this method be successful for willing patients.

“We want to treat the whole human being,” he said.

Medicare and supplemental insurance benefits might provide coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment. The Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation helps people with substance abuse disorders find funding, Bhalani said.

Mike Bargas, a former substance abuse disorder sufferer and the father of two, recalled living in a halfway house with two men above the age of 55 who were recovering from opioid-abuse disorders. The men served in the military and were prescribed opioids during medical treatment.

Opioids were easier to get when they were being treated because there weren’t as many restrictions in place, Bargas said.

Sadly, both veterans have since passed away, one from an overdose.

“You could tell that they never meant to get addicted to these things,” he said. “You become dependent on them and it’s hard to get back to normal. Your serotonin goes so high and then when you are off them you get depressed and crave the feeling of being pain free.”

The Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation will hold a Shatter the Stigma of Addiction & Suicide Gala on Nov. 1 at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Cocoa, which is located at 301 Tucker Lane in Cocoa. Tickets are $125 each and include an Indian dinner.

Vance Johnson, a former football player for the Denver Broncos and a recovering substance abuse disorder sufferer, will be the chief guest at this event. The event will raise funds to help uninsured patients.

“We want the community to be aware of it and also to help to shatter the stigma of addiction and suicide,” Bhalani said.

For more information about the Doctors’ Goodwill Foundation, call 321-543-1495 or go to doctorsfoundation.org.