For caregivers, the holidays are often filled with hard conversations about the health of older family members. This year, some of those conversations may turn to medical marijuana.
Use of cannabis by senior citizens for medicinal purposes is increasing rapidly. According to one study, seniors are turning to cannabis to help manage pain or get a better night’s sleep.
Dr. Kenneth Weinberg, chief medical officer of Cannabis Doctors of New York, said he’s writing more cannabis prescriptions for those 65 and older than ever before.
“Since the law legalizing medicinal cannabis went into effect, we’re seeing more and more people going to cannabis when all else has failed,” he said.
When it comes to convincing the elderly to try cannabis, their children can play a vital role in the decision, Weinberg said.
“It (Talk of cannabis use for medical treatment in seniors) comes up a lot,” he said. “A lot of younger people want to get their parents cannabis.”
But how to start this conversation?
Jeannemarie Bozza, a registered nurse and co-founder and CEO of Ambassador Concierge Nurse Management, a group that helps senior citizen patients with medical marijuana treatments, said it’s vital to approach seniors with compassion and empathy when encouraging them to try cannabis.
“I’ve found the best way to approach it is to make it seem like it was their idea,” she said. “Make them think it was their thought the whole time.”
Bozza suggests having an open, honest conversation about the benefits of cannabis over traditional painkillers.
“You have to be very open when dealing with the elderly,” she said. “In many cases, they feel like their independence has been taken away. If you make them feel like they are in control, you have a better shot at getting them to try something.”
There’s also a stigma surrounding marijuana when it comes to elders, Weinberg said. His eldest patients were in their youth when “Reefer Madness” was released, a film about the evils of marijuana.
“Reefer Madness is one of the great propaganda films of all time,” he said. “People still think about killer weed. It was very effective. Those kinds of attitudes can be very hard to get past. It’s something you’ve had for so many years, even though it’s not based in reality.”
But an increasing number of studies are showing marijuana could provide a number of health benefits to seniors suffering from a variety of ailments. It can improve appetite, induce sleep and relieve pain.
Bozza said she typically introduces seniors to cannabis via a topical cream used to relieve pain.
“Cream seems a lot less scary,” she said. “When you think of cannabis, that’s not what you think of. It’s a good way to lull someone into it. If you just try to hand an older person a joint, I don’t know if you will get the same result.”
From there, seniors may be more open to a variety of ingestion methods, including edibles, tinctures, pills and even vaping.
Cannabis is sometimes preferred for seniors because it doesn’t have the same side effects as opioids, Bozza said.
“The elderly have joint pain. CBD is an anti-inflammatory and THC is a painkiller,” she said.
Opiates can also cause constipation, a symptom seniors may already be dealing with. Switching to a cannabis prescription can do away with that concern.
It can be especially helpful for reducing anxiety.
“We live in a high-anxiety society,” she said. “Cannabis helps shut that down. And there’s no hangover.”
Bozza said seniors are also more willing to try cannabis if they have already tried a bunch of other treatments and nothing else seems to be working.
“By the time we walk in, things aren’t great, so there’s a level of trust,” she said. “They’re willing to try or do anything that we offer. Get to a certain point in life and in chronic pain and you will be willing to try anything.”
Jordan Guinn is a published journalist with bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Stockton Record and more. He’s covered everything from agriculture, to violent crime to water.