Grandma’s gone….to an addiction treatment center

By on January 4, 2017


Ali was quite frank and honest in talking about her Grandma Mary.

“Years ago, when asked how my grandma was doing following the death of her husband, I would have said she’s doing as well as can be expected,” said Ali. “Today, I have to tell the truth. Grandma Mary is in an addiction treatment center for treatment of her secret drug and alcohol addiction. I blame myself for being too busy with my family and career to not notice the symptoms. I blame her doctors who continued prescribing her multiple medications. Did they intentionally turn her into an addict, or couldn’t they just say no when she complained of aches and pains?

Grandma Mary was the matriarch of our family. She and grandpa always put their family first. Every holiday, Grandma prepared a large, delicious dinner for everyone. They always gave us birthday gifts; Easter baskets; anything that we needed they were there to help. They exemplified the epitome of a happily married couple. At our traditional New Year’s Day pork and sauerkraut dinner, grandma always proclaimed her same resolution, “I resolve to outlive grandpa so that I don’t have to watch baseball all summer!: Grandpa would chuckle; kiss her on her forehead and say, “I resolve to have your resolution come true.”

They rarely went to their doctor or took any pills, other than grandma’s daily potassium pill for her leg cramps. They loved God, their family and each other.

Early one February morning our doorbell rang. It was our pastor, coming to tell us that grandpa had died, unexpectedly, in his sleep. We rushed to their house. Grandma looked at me and through tears she cried, “I never really meant my New Year’s resolution. I’m so sorry.”

Our family took his passing with tremendous sadness. Grandma insisted we stop “babying” her and let her watch her game shows in peace. We honored her request until the afternoon I stopped in to check on her and found her lying on the kitchen floor, grimacing in pain and bleeding. While trying to change a light bulb, she had fallen off of a chair. She screamed for me to get some pills out of her bread box. I was confused but opened the bread box to find a multitude of prescription pill bottles! In disbelief I gave her some Vicodin along with a glass of water, as I dialed 911.

Following her surgery for a fractured wrist, we took her home and I stayed to help her get settled. She immediately went to the corner cupboard and took out a large bottle of vodka! Sternly but calmly, she asked me to open it for her as she told me that she normally drank it with orange juice but today would just drink it straight from the bottle. Trying to remain calm, I asked her for an explanation for all of the pills and alcohol.

“Ali, it’s really not a big deal,” she said. “When grandpa died, our doctor called and suggested that I come in to see him. He said he knew that I must be very sad and that he could help me feel better. I left his office with a prescription for Xanax. Before that, I was only drinking alcohol, as so many of my friends told me it takes the edge off of your pain and helps you to sleep. As my arthritis and back pain worsened, he gave me an order for Vicodin. My dentist gave me Darvocet after I had that tooth pulled. Before I knew it I was popping pills and drinking all day long. My doctor would tweak and add some other drugs until I was finally feeling really good. He would always give me more than enough. He’s a good doctor!”

I was livid. Her laundry list of drugs was given to my grandma without my knowledge. Nobody spoke with her about the risks. I realized that she could recall the names of her prescriptions more easily than her own grandchildren’s’ names. This explained her changes in behavior, which I had chalked off as grieving for grandpa. My beloved grandma was a senior citizen addict!

Filled with shame and guilt, I called my doctor and insisted that he assess her. I filled a grocery bag overflowing with her prescription bottles as she watched her game show and chugged her vodka. She reluctantly agreed to go but insisted she couldn’t walk to my car without taking a few Percocet first. As I helped her stumble into the doctor’s office I nearly vomited. How did this happen to her? I was filled with anger. Did her doctors intentionally over-prescribe and over-medicate her to the point of addiction, or was it too hard to say no to her?

My doctor calmly informed her that he would properly dispose of her medications as she really didn’t need them. As he explained that over the counter products would be adequate, someone I didn’t know jumped out of my grandma’s body and lunged for her bag of pills. She screamed and cursed at the doctor, yelling that she couldn’t live without them. Two nurses came in to restrain her as my heart broke.

Amidst the chaotic scene, my doctor explained that no other population is prescribed more drugs than our senior population. The number of seniors using, and abusing, controlled substances continues to climb. Hundreds of thousands of our nation’s seniors are misusing prescription drugs, spurred by a medical community that often is quick to offer narcotic painkillers, anxiety medications, and other drugs for everything from joint pain to depression. Despite a push by public health officials to slash dispensing rates, doctors are prescribing highly addictive drugs at record levels. As her Power of Attorney, I agreed to have a nearby rehab inpatient facility transport her to begin the process of detoxification, rehabilitation and recovery.

As I share this with you my heart aches. Grandma is still in rehab. We’re starting to see glimpses of our real grandma and have hope for her future, which will most likely be in a personal care facility. Every day I see articles on drug and alcohol addiction, and read sad obituaries of the addicts with a history of lifelong, hard-core addictions. Then I think about sweet, frail, 74-year-old Grandma Mary, now in an addiction treatment facility. But she was gone long ago and we didn’t notice the signs of substance abuse.

We need to address this growing problem. If you think for one minute that it can’t happen in your family, you are very wrong. Addiction doesn’t discriminate!

Janice Ballenger may be contacted at

This monthly series on the addiction crisis facing our society is written by Janice Ballenger, who works at Retreat at Lancaster County, a premiere 175-bed inpatient center in Ephrata. She shares her burning passion to raise awareness and offer hope to those in active addiction and recovery, as well as to their families and friends through true, local stories.

Many are surprised to learn that addiction issues affect young and old alike.

Many are surprised to learn that addiction issues affect young and old alike.


  1. Ivan Reiff

    January 6, 2017 at 1:50 am

    What an incredibly sad story…I had no idea ?

    • Janice Ballenger

      July 4, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      More and more senior citizens are being treated for addiction. I think it’s due in large to the increased awareness on addictive drugs and behavior.

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