How Cannabis Can Help The Elderly

Some seniors report that certain cannabis products help relieve certain symptoms and provide therapeutic benefits. However, the truth is, there are many seniors who indulge in weed purely for its recreational, and fun psychoactive effects.

How Cannabis Can Help Seniors

If you ask someone to describe the stereotypical cannabis user, chances are the age group will be anywhere from their teens to maybe their 40s at the oldest, or, one might talk about “the hippies” in the 1960s and 70s, who in the time would have also been in their teens and 20s. Rarely, if ever, is someone who is in their 60s or older mentioned, which is ironic considering the fact that “those” same hippies from the 60s and 70s are now well into their senior years.

Unfortunately, society often seems to forget that elders or “senior citizens” can, not only move with the times but also were once members of a generation that helped to get the wheels of progress turning.

All of this is to say that the notion that seniors aren’t active members of the recreational and medical cannabis community is both naive and, perhaps, even “ageist.” In fact, a study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2019 showed that marijuana usage has jumped by 75% amongst elders aged 65 and older from 2.4% to 4.2% between 2015 to 2018 and that by 2019, usage in this demographic was at a solid 5%.

In addition, while using marijuana for its potential benefits of alleviating various conditions is a prevalent reason why many seniors use cannabis products, the truth is, there are many seniors who indulge in weed purely for its recreational, and fun psychoactive effects, etc.

Older Adults Have Shifted Their Views on Marijuana

While research shows that adults ages 60 and upwards are increasingly getting their medical marijuana cards and using cannabis to alleviate a wide girth of common health issues, that doesn’t mean our elders don’t indulge in weed for its purely recreational effects. I mean, think about it, your favorite 72-year-old aunt, who has always just been “eternally youthful and cool” was 18 when she went to Woodstock in 1969 and traveled the country in a van long before that lifestyle was reduced to a hashtag, and probably could’ve out-toked you back in the day. Is it really a surprise that she isn’t above dropping a THC gummy?

Why Their Views Have Shifted

Research has shown that for older adults who only started to use marijuana in their later years, one of the key factors that led to this shift was legalization. This is because the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis has significantly de-stigmatized the use of it and the negative, and generally unfounded and all too frequently racist and classist, stereotypes around “who” and “what kind” of individuals use weed. In addition, while there are many legitimate negative things to be said about social media, seeing the increase in acceptance by how marijuana usage is portrayed in the mainstream media and their own peers on their social media accounts, have helped to shift the attitudes and beliefs long held by a certain swath of Baby Boomers who didn’t embrace the flower power of the 60s and 70s and instead were wrongly influenced by the willful misinformation and fear-mongering, etc. spread during the “War on Drugs” that was started by former-President Nixon when they were young.

That said, this same research has also shown that, unfortunately, cannabis usage for recreational, or “social” reasons does still carry a stigma with it amongst seniors–especially those who were born at the very tail end of the Silent Generation–those born between 1925-1945. But again, the attitudes and perceptions of Baby Boomers and the “late members” of the Silent Generation about using weed have and are changing and more and more are using it.

MMJ Cards and Why Not?

Not too surprisingly, elders who started out using weed to address medical conditions have often then ended up using it for recreational purposes, as if having a medical marijuana card somehow gave them permission to do or try something they’ve always wanted but were afraid to try due to the social stigmas associated with it.

And then there are many others who approach weed with the same attitude as one 85-year-old man who said: “At this point in my life, I don’t think it would do any harm. I’m not going to get addicted, and if I do, so what? Every day is a gift in my world.”

The Medical Benefits of Marijuana for Seniors

So, now you understand that elders don’t just use cannabis for arthritis, let’s talk about the benefits of marijuana for medical purposes.

According to Christopher Kaufmann, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego: “Pain, insomnia and anxiety were the most common reasons for cannabis use and, for the most part, patients reported that cannabis was helping to address these issues, especially with insomnia and pain.” His findings come from a study, which was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in October 2020, that he was a co-author. In this study, Kaufmann and his colleagues found that out of 568 patients, 15% had used cannabis within the past three years with half saying they used it consistently and mainly for medicinal applications.

Accessibility Benefits for Senior Medical Users

On the fiscal side of things, not only is cannabis considered by some healthcare providers to be a viable option for pain applications and mental health issues, common cannabis products found at cannabis retail shops are generally much cheaper than costly pharmaceutical drugs, which can be especially beneficial to retired elders who can’t afford over-priced health insurance plans that are generally only accessible to the uber-wealthy. This said, it is important to note that the therapeutic effects associated with any given strain or product are never guaranteed, and it is always best to consult a trained medical professional before exploring cannabis as a potential option for symptom relief.

 Also, unlike over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs, cannabis plants can be grown at home by both patients and caregivers in places where cultivation for medical and/or recreational purposes is legal. This means that seniors who have limited access to transportation etc. have the possibility of always having access to cannabis flower without having to leave their homes.

Men playing chess at a park
Seniors can benefit from cannabis as it may help with stress or discomfort
Source: Vlad Sargu Unsplash

What Gives Cannabis its Benefits?

As you may or may not already know, the cannabinoids of cannabis, such as THC and CBD, as well as hundreds more, are what contain the most healing compounds. (For the sake of simplicity, only THC and CBD will be addressed in this piece.)

Basically, cannabinoids bind with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) receptors of CB1 and CB2, which results in the medicinal benefits that a high percentage of patients experience. Basically, THC can bind to both CB1 and CB2, and CBD can bind to CB2. As such, when a cannabis product contains a THC: CBD ratio, its combined entourage effects can be especially potent in combating discomfort and inflammation. In fact, many medical marijuana experts tend to recommend full-spectrum CBD or THC: CBD products to elderly patients.

So, for example, if your body is either over or under-producing dopamine, cannabinoids can naturally alter the release of neurotransmitters by either blocking their ability to bind when the body has produced too much dopamine or encouraging the production of more when the body needs more dopamine.

Common Health Conditions that Medical Cannabis May Help With

THC and CBD are able to bind with ECS receptors. Some individuals have reported products with these cannabinoids help suppress chronic pain and neuropathic pain; reduce and/or relieve nausea and vomiting resulting from harsh chemical cancer treatments; and help with glaucoma, eating disorders, and other chronic diseases.

Furthermore, medical providers often prescribe cannabis for anxiety and chronic stress to seniors (and younger folk). In short, in places where access to cannabis for at least medical purposes, many individuals find medical cannabis to be helpful for mood management.

For older adults, CBD-only products are sometimes prescribed to help in managing Parkinson’s and several other chronic conditions.

In addition, both CBD and THC types of cannabis products have been shown in anecdotal reports to help in addressing sleep disorders, which is a common issue that plagues many elders. Some research has discovered that using cannabis for sleep support and pain relief may also help with preventing, slowing, or even in some cases improving cognitive decline because if you’re getting enough sleep and not constantly in a heightened state of pain, your brain is able to function better. This said, research on the potential medical benefits of cannabis is still ongoing—and there is no certainty that cannabis will provide relief from any particular symptoms. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence does support the idea that certain individuals do find cannabis helpful.

Cannabis for Palliative Care

The potential efficacy of cannabis for pain etc. are being researched more and more, including in hospice care settings. As already mentioned above, many individuals with cancer-related and chronic symptoms report varying levels of relief from certain cannabis strains or products—which suggests cannabis may have the potential to improve the geriatric health conditions of older adults. It’s also frequently used to help patients who are in the palliative stage of their terminal illness.

While it’s not just senior citizens who can find themselves facing the end of life in a hospice setting, the reality is the senior community does make up a good percentage of those undergoing palliative care.

By no means does anyone with a shred of respectability and ethics in the medical cannabis community purport that the medical effects of marijuana can cure cancer or terminal disease. However, many advocates for its usage in a hospice care setting not only for the medical reasons of reducing or temporarily potentially “eliminating” pain but also because its mind-altering effects are believed to ease both the spiritual and existential suffering that comes with facing the end of one’s life and accepting the loss of bodily functions that go along with this. The euphoria one tends to experience when using marijuana can help to provide both cerebral and body relaxation, allowing a patient to experience a greater sense of acceptance of their fate.

Marijuana as an Upper: Potential Benefits

Enhancing Delight

Another huge benefit for elders who use marijuana for medical or recreational purposes is how it can serve to enhance the senses, which can result in an increase in pleasure and appreciation for one’s immediate surroundings, music, food, and the planet as a whole.

Horticultural Therapy for Seniors

It’s also known that horticultural therapy provides many mental and physical health benefits, so older adults who are tending to their own cannabis crops at home are able to more actively engage in the world around them and experience the pleasure that comes with gardening, and the physical benefits that come from being physically active outside if even only for a few minutes every day.

Laughter: The BEST Medicine

Many indica and sativa hybrids have a reputation for inducing a sense of immense bliss, elation, happiness, and a serious case of the giggles. All of these cannabis benefits may be particularly useful to elders who, unfortunately, tend to be at a greater risk for social isolation that can ensue due to this. By reaping the joy- and laughter-filled effects associated with many cannabis strains, seniors can not only experience a mood boost, but may also find themselves feeling more motivated to do the things they love, and to be more socially engaged with members of their community, family, or in their neighborhood.

Plus, it’s been researched and proven that laughter has real physical health benefits and positive long-term effects–some of which are provided below:

  • Strengthens the immune system by decreasing negative thoughts/feelings, which in turn can weaken your immune system.
  • Improves one’s cardiovascular conditions by cooling stress responses and increasing and then decreasing both the heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Reduces artery inflammation and prevents plaque from forming on the walls of your arteries. It is thought that laughing may be just as effective at reducing inflammation as an aerobic workout or cholesterol-lowering prescription medications are. This can be especially good for elders who even just due to the regular bodily limitations that come with aging aren’t able to engage in workouts anymore or who are prone to higher cholesterol levels.
  • Increases good cholesterol (HDL) levels, which pushes bad cholesterol (LDL) out of the arteries to the liver, where it is eliminated.
  • Helps to diminish pain and muscular tension.
Senior lady holding a camera
No matter your age, everyone can benefit from cannabis in their lives
Source: Tiago Muraro Unsplash

Conclusion: The Potential Adverse Effects of Cannabis on Seniors

It would be irresponsible to not provide you with a few of the potential risks for older adults who use cannabis. However, before bringing up a few key areas to be aware of, the number one piece of advice I can offer any elder who is new to cannabis is to speak with a trained and licensed member of the clinical workforce and let them know what if any prescriptions meds you are taking, etc. so that they can help advise and determine whether or not cannabis is a good option for you. In addition, know that most doctors already tend to prescribe lower effective doses for seniors than they do for younger folk, and will generally advise consuming marijuana products via the means of consuming tinctures or edibles as opposed to smoking cannabis flower, due in large part to the fact that they deliver effects more quickly and it’s much easier to ensure lower doses this way.

Some of the most common risks associated with the senior use of marijuana are laid out below.

  • The risk of falls due to experiencing drowsiness and/or dizziness.
  • Cardiovascular risks can be especially high for those on blood thinners or anti-seizure medications, as some THC-containing products may result in increasing heart rate and blood pressure. (CBD-only products tend to pose less of a risk.)
  • For those who are about to undergo surgery, it may impact anesthesia and any pain management plans.
  • Increase in delirium, which is already a common condition for older adults who are much more advanced in their years.

If you have questions or concerns about any of these areas or others, please speak with your medical provider.


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