When Daniel Reingold’s father was dying of cancer in 1999, the options for pain management were limited at best. So, after reading about the benefits of medical marijuana, Reingold decided to give the plant a try. He boiled marijuana leaves into a tea for his father in his last few weeks of life, and the results were incredible—increased appetite, boosted spirits, and relief from constant pain.
“At the end of his life, my father found peace and relief,” says Reingold. “And I thought, ‘It would be nice to do this for other people who are suffering.’”
When medical marijuana was legalized in New York State more than a decade later, Reingold finally got his chance. As president and CEO of RiverSpring Health featuring the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, he put the wheels in motion to start a medical marijuana program at the nursing home. After receiving unanimous support from the entire medical committee and staff, the Hebrew Home rolled out its own medical marijuana program in January 2017.
Marijuana in Senior Living
Here’s how it works: The Hebrew Home’s medical director may prescribe marijuana to residents but, to comply with federal and state regulations, the nursing home cannot store, dispense, or administer it. Residents or their registered caregivers must purchase cannabis from a licensed dispensary, secure it in a private cabinet, and take the medicine on their own.
And this isn’t the pot seniors might have smoked in their younger years. In New York, medical marijuana is dispensed in pill, patch, or liquid form, and the dispensaries have total control of the process—from growth of the plant to user purchase.
“It’s pharmaceutical-grade cannabis,” says Reingold. “It’s not designed to get people high.”
About a dozen residents are already participating in the program at the Hebrew Home, with purely positive results. Some residents are no longer using morphine, and one resident has even experienced a significant reduction in seizures.
“Everyone using it is finding relief,” affirms Reingold.
Acceptance of Marijuana for Seniors
Clearly, older adults are benefiting from the use of medical marijuana. In fact, New York State launched its medical marijuana program in 2016 because the drug “has been shown to help alleviate pain and enhance the quality of life for individuals suffering from certain diseases.”
Even so, the topic is still taboo in certain circles because marijuana is banned by federal law, which leads to bad vibes about cannabis. But Reingold says there’s no such stigma at the Hebrew Home.
“Marijuana is not an addictive drug,” he says. “Young people may become dependent on it, but in an environment like our nursing home, there have been no negatives.”
In fact, compared with more powerful painkillers, he says marijuana is relatively benign.
“I have a greater concern about other pharmaceuticals prescribed for older adults,” says Reingold, citing the opioid epidemic that has plagued the United States and caused more than 15,000 deaths in 2015 alone.
Limitations to Marijuana Use
Though Reingold sees marijuana gaining popularity with seniors as an alternative to traditional medicine, access continues to be a problem. Cannabis is not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, so residents must pay out of pocket—which can cost a couple hundred dollars a month, he says.
Also, in New York, marijuana use is only allowed for those with the following medical conditions: cancer, HIV/AIDS, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury with spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathy, Huntington’s disease, or chronic pain.
“For older adults, the goal is to not be in pain, and to have as much independence as possible,” he says. And he believes medical marijuana can help seniors achieve that.
LEARN MORE: Find out if medical marijuana is legal in your state, and talk to your senior living provider about its medical marijuana policies.