NEW YORK—Ruth Brunn finally said yes to marijuana. She is 98.
She pops a green pill filled with cannabis oil into her mouth with a sip of vitamin water. Then Brunn, who has neuropathy, settles back in her wheelchair and waits for the jabbing pain in her shoulders, arms and hands to ebb.
“I don’t feel high or stoned,” she said. “All I know is I feel better when I take this.”
Brunn will soon have company. The nursing home in New York City where she lives, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, is taking the unusual step of helping its residents use medical marijuana under a new program to treat various illnesses with an alternative to prescription drugs. While the staff will not store or administer pot, residents are allowed to buy it from a dispensary, keep it in locked boxes in their rooms and take it on their own.
From retirement communities to nursing homes, older Americans are increasingly turning to marijuana for relief from aches and pains. Many have embraced it as an alternative to powerful drugs, like morphine, saying that marijuana is less addictive, with fewer side effects.
For some people, it is a last resort when nothing else helps.
Marijuana, which is banned by federal law, has been approved for medical use in 29 states, including New York, and the District of Columbia. Accumulating scientific evidence has shown its effectiveness in treating certain medical conditions. Among them: neuropathic pain, severe muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, unintentional weight loss, and vomiting and nausea from chemotherapy. There have also been reports that pot has helped people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, as well as Parkinson’s disease.
Across the nation, the number of marijuana users who are in their later years is still relatively limited, but the increase has been significant, especially among those 65 and older, according to recent studies.
“It’s a bigger issue than we thought,” said Brian Kaskie, a professor of health policy at the University of Iowa who cowrote a study published in January, “The Increasing Use of Cannabis Among Older Americans: A Public Health Crisis or Viable Policy Alternative?” “This is an elephant we’re just starting to get our hands on.”
A medical marijuana education and support club started by residents of Rossmoor Walnut Creek, a retirement community east of San Francisco, has grown to 530 members—so many it has changed meeting rooms three times.
“I would be in a lot worse shape if I wasn’t using cannabis, both physically and mentally,” said Anita Mataraso, 72, a grandmother of six who is the program director and takes marijuana daily for arthritis and nerve pain, among other ailments.
In the state of Washington, at least a dozen assisted living facilities have formal medical marijuana policies in response to demands from their residents, said Robin Dale, executive director of the Washington Health Care Association. The association, an industry group, has posted a sample medical marijuana policy on its web site.
In March an influential group of medical providers, AMDA—The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine—will tackle the issue at its annual conference. Cari Levy, the group’s vice president, will offer a “Marijuana 101” lesson on the benefits, the risks and the potential pitfalls for providers.
“People are using it, and we need know how to respond,” she said.
But as older people come to represent an emerging frontier in the use of marijuana for medical purposes, questions are being raised about safety and accessibility. Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, older people who stand to benefit often cannot get it. Most nursing homes do not openly sanction its use, and many doctors are reluctant to endorse pot use, saying not enough is known about the risks in the oldest age groups.
“This is a target demographic that may have their access limited, if not cut off altogether, simply because they reside in a facility,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, a group that advocates the legalization of marijuana. “It is a problem that may infringe on their quality of life.”
While there is no shortage of research on marijuana, relatively little of it has focused explicitly on older users even as their numbers grow—and not just in the United States. In Israel, for instance, older people have been treated with medical marijuana for years. And Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group, helped open a research center in the Czech Republic that is evaluating its effect on older people.
“It’s an area that’s very important to look at,” said Dr. Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, adding that older people are one of the center’s research priorities.
“Older people can be more sensitive to medicine,” he said. “It’s possible a dose safe for a 40-year-old may not be in an 80-year-old.”