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.
“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, the executive director of the Washington Health Care Association. The association, an industry group, has posted a sample medical marijuana policy on its website.
“People are using it, and we need to 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.”
“It’s an area that’s very important to look at,” said Dr. Igor Grant, the director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, adding that older people are now 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.”
At the Hebrew Home in the Bronx, the medical marijuana program was years in the making. Daniel Reingold, the president and chief executive of RiverSpring Health, which operates the home, said he saw its powers firsthand when his own father, Jacob, was dying from cancer in 1999. To ease his father’s pain, Mr. Reingold boiled marijuana into a murky brown tea. His father loved it, and was soon laughing and eating again.
“The only relief he got in those last two weeks was the tea,” Mr. Reingold said.
When Mr. Reingold requested approval from the nursing home’s board members, there were no objections or concerns, he said. Instead, they joked that they would have to increase the food budget.
Marcia Dunetz, 80, a retired art teacher who has Parkinson’s, said she worried at first about what people would think. “It’s got a stigma,” she said. “People don’t really believe you’re not really getting high if you take it.”
But she decided to try it anyway. Now, she no longer wakes up with headaches and feels less dizzy and nauseated. Her legs also do not freeze up as often.
For Ms. Brunn, the marijuana pills have worked so well that she has cut back on her other pain medication, morphine.
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 impact on older people.