Medical Marijuana: A Solution for the Elderly’s Nagging Health Problems?

marijuana pillsThe Holocaust followed my dad and colored his world every step he took -- despite escaping from Hungary during the uprising of 1956. Family members who were not sent to concentration camps, were starved during the war while hiding in the Jewish ghetto located just behind the majestic Dohany Synagogue.

His conversations frequently lead back to 1945 and how difficult it was for him satisfy his aching hunger. Years later, while he and I were traveling by train through the English countryside on an antiquing trip, we started talking with a fellow passenger. He was just about my father’s age and eager to chat. It wasn’t long before the subject veered off to the war. He too, knew what it was like to go without food. “We would have killed for potatoes” he exclaimed. To that my father replied, “We would have been happy with just the potato peels.”

He often reminded me and my sister Cynthia that Americans have it so good. “No one in this wonderful country knows what it is like to go hungry.” And it was true, we didn’t know. We grew up in the 70’s eating Twinkies, nibbling on Captain Crunch cereal straight from the box, and sometimes, gluttonously frying up a steak to eat after school while watching Gene Rayborn host Match Game ‘76.

To my deep embarrassment as a teenager, after most meals, he would declare, “We may be poor, but we eat well.” While, he applauded a good appetite, and appreciated good cooking, he could not stand throwing food away. Better to push away from the table with our jeans unzipped and feeling nauseated than to leave a few morsels and be subjected to Dad’s proselytizing.

Shopping at Stew Leonard’s with my Dad was a mind-blowing experience for him. “If someone would tell me when I was a child in Hungary that I would live to see mounds of oranges and bananas piled in large bins – I would never have believed them.” Like a greedy child, he grabbed the samples that Wow the Cow enthusiastically pushed into customer’s hands. He once cried in the middle of the store – mumbling his constant refrain, “Americans are so blessed.” With loads of shopping yet to do, I lost it. “Dad” I sternly said, “You are making a scene. Please don’t cry every time you see a fallen chestnut. Now help me find the Splenda.”

At nearly 89 years of age, Dad is once again starving, not at the hands of cruel oppressors, but because of the effects of kidney disease and a life time of high blood pressure. No matter what is being served, he cannot manage more than a few bites. He pushes his food around the plate like an anorexic hoping we won’t notice that he isn’t eating. Well-meaning suggestions, such as “Dad, even if you aren’t hungry – try small bites; eat more snacks; drink Ensure in the morning” have done little to put any meat on his old bones.,

I recently took my father to see a local neurologist who is certified in the medical use of marijuana in the hope that she could help. He hardly had the energy to answer her questions and sat on the examination table, slumped over wearing his little boy jeans, blue down vest, and Brooks sneakers. “Tell me what brings you in?” “What do you hope to achieve with the marijuana?” By the end of our appointment she understood that dad weighed about 107 pounds with his clothes on, and was slowly disappearing. She had everything she needed to justify a medical marijuana card.

Later that afternoon, the pharmacist, a young girl with cherry red hair wearing a reassuring white lab coat, at the local Medical Marijuana Clinic recommended to start dad’s treatment with a balanced blend of anti-inflammatory properties and a mild relaxant. We sat at her desk while she reviewed the color-coded THC scale, and explained that we landed smack on the center blue dot. She underscored that this was a process of trial and error – and that there were few controlled studies demonstrating effectiveness. Dad, a physician himself, tucked away the lack of science, and agreed to try the “hash pills”. He stopped short of purchasing the vaping pen for a quick hit of intensified relief. Just before exiting through the labyrinth of locking doors with a 2-month supply of pot nestled neatly in recycled brown paper bag, the receptionist helped us to sign up for the rewards program. Dad would be able to keep up with all the Medical Marijuana News and earn points toward his next purchase.

Eager to see if the marijuana improved his appetite and mood I made an early bird reservation at a local restaurant where we all watched him swallow down the pills. I was hopeful that I would soon, once again, hear my dad say, “We may be poor, but we eat well.”

A few weeks later, while sitting with my dad and sister in the communal living room at his independent residence in Yonkers, I asked if the marijuana was helping him with his appetite and mood. He was out of it, not because of TCH, but because of the lack of sleep and effects of his progressive kidney disease. Before dad could straighten up and ask me to repeat the question, David, a 90-year old whose wife was now at the Hebrew Home because of advanced dementia, lamented that he had tried marijuana for the stabbing, burning neuropathic pain he was experiencing in his feet. “Nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t do much for me.” He was resigned to living with the pain caused by diabetes. Just as my father’s fog started to lift and he was almost able to jump into the conversation, Barbara, an elderly wheel chair bound woman to my left quietly chimed in. She told her aid that she wanted to try marijuana for her aches and pains as well. When we asked her about any previous use, she smiled and confessed to the small group that she had tried it years ago and enjoyed it. Dad dramatically clearing his throat and taking a sip of his high protein drink, finally joined the conversation. “Yes. Yes girls, I am eating more. See?” I wish I could have given him a gold star for his efforts.

Practical experience will dictate marijuana’s place in an older person’s cocktail of life sustaining drugs. For now, I found it interesting that my father and his new friends were so hopeful about the potential use of plant for controlling pain, easing anxiety and improving appetite levels. Ironically, it wasn’t that long ago, that my dad rushed up to my bedside while I was in college armed with medical literature condemning its use, when I dramatically freaked out after eating hash brownies. Today, he is as accepting of it as he is of his granddaughter’s ever changing hair color. Bright blue, purple, red – a rainbow bridging the generations.