I will never forget the first time I saw my dad smoke pot. Unfortunately, it was not a fun event filled with nostalgic stories of his bachelor days in the ‘60s. Instead, it was done in a hurry, trying to decrease the pain caused by that day’s chemotherapy visit. We were looking to pot to help return my dad’s appetite enough to get down some much-needed sustenance. He had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma a few months earlier. Chemo, like cancer, comes on soft, but ramps up shockingly fast. The pain and hair loss were a constant reminder of my father’s impending mortality, squashing any of the positive morale survived from the blow of the diagnosis.

Our neighbor was a pot grower. We knew this because earlier that year our dog had brought a paper bag filled with trimmings to our porch as a love offering. When pain takes over, we found that any etiquette around personal privacy is likely to fly out the window. My father had been a person who normally preferred keeping to himself, but was no longer interested in wasting time.  He walked down the lane to our neighbor’s house to ask them for a sample.

The desperate measure worked. Soon he incorporated cannabis into his daily prescription routine. It helped him eat, sleep, and just generally forget some of the terribleness that was happening around him, even if only for the short while, until the cancer finally took him.

My experience in trying to help my father try cannabis was bad, and sadly, not uncommon. Now that many states are legalizing cannabis, and access is increasing, thousands of Americans have begun having conversations with their aging parents, hopefully in happier situations than mine, about how cannabis could be a viable health option. In fact, the elderly are the fastest growing demographic for cannabis consumption according to some.

Given the changing times, with huge numbers of adult children facing the awkward proposition of talking to their parents about cannabis as a medicine, I figured it is important to research the best ways to do it. Luckily for me, I found an expert, both personally and professionally. Two years ago, Carrie Tice had chosen to talk to her 80-year-old mother, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, about using cannabis. The experience of finding out what to give her mom, how to get it, and then how to take it all was wrought with challenges.  So much so that Tice set out to make the journey easier for other adult children in her shoes. Today, she is the CEO and co-founder of Octavia Wellness, an organization that provides safe, trusted access to cannabis products, with a special focus on the senior population. Obviously, she had a few things to say about the do’s and don’ts of helping older people understand how cannabis can fit into their lives.

Dispensaries Might Not Be the Best Place

Most dispensaries are geared towards the knowledgeable connoisseur. This might leave those not familiar with cannabis jargon and applications more than a little confused.  Tice learned that quickly. “Going into a dispensary was a real turnoff to my mother. The high-security and other people waiting in line behind her made her feel not welcomed. She had so many questions and the budtender explained everything like she was an expert,” she said. That experience led to her creating a business centered around recruiting and training Wellness Consultants who are able to work directly with clients, often in the privacy of their own homes, and spend the time needed to educate them and guide them through the cannabis therapy process.  There is also an arm of the company that trains dispensary “bud-tenders” about non-psychoactive alternatives, which come in frustration-free packaging systems complete with dosing instructions designed to appeal to the senior market.

Plus, she explains that older people’s systems are often times more sensitive than those of other demographics.  For this reason, Octavia’s first step is to understand an individual client’s tolerance to THC (the psychoactive compound of the cannabis plant), as well as their disease state, before recommending specific products.  It’s important to remember that just because a particular application and dose may work for a younger person, the same amounts could be too much for someone that is older.  Tice believes in starting “low and slow” to make sure that clients won’t have an uncomfortable experience.  While cannabis therapy is known to be a safe and effective treatment for many ailments affecting seniors, and research has concluded that it’s nearly impossible to have a lethal dose of cannabis, still, too much THC can result in a client feeling overly high and uncomfortable.  This is why Octavia designs “entry level” treatments for those wanting to experience the benefits of cannabis without the high.  

Don’t Start with Edibles

“Everything was going great with my mom’s treatment, until I overdosed her,” Tice said. One day she unknowingly gave her mother an edible that was too strong.  The result was her mom spending hours feeling very high, to the point where Tice worried that her mom would be resistant to continuing with cannabis.  Not only that, but Tice explained that when someone gets too high, they have a tendency to want to share their story with others, over and over again!  And with seniors, who often live in planned communities and are accustomed to sharing their health experience with their peers - one report of a bad experience can cause others to become hesitant to trying cannabis themselves!  “When something works for one person in a senior community, that good news is likely to be shared across bridge tables or during a pottery classes,” Tice explains, “but that viral communication system also spreads the news if a community member experiences adverse results!”

Tice has learned to start with more benign offerings like Octavia’s system of body creams or oral tinctures. These options allow seniors to benefit from the effects of cannabis without the risk of overconsumption. This risk is exacerbated by the possibility of falling, a serious concern that can have a very negative effect on an elderly person’s standard of living. The Wellness Consultants at Octavia try to ease the client into a regiment, knowing that one bad experience might steer them away forever. Octavia has a full gamut of products, but it's the tinctures and topicals that continue to be their most purchased, followed by capsules and vape pens, with edibles being last on the list.  Still, there are clients who find edibles to be an effective modality, but most of Octavia’s offerings are very low-dose (below 5 mg of THC), and come with clear packaging and instructions about how to take safely.

Don’t Expect Them to Care About the Details

Like I mentioned earlier, most dispensaries target a connoisseur clientele. These consumers want to know everything about the strain’s family tree, the grower techniques and the extraction medium. But most older people searching for relief don’t share the same enthusiasm. They view cannabis-infused products like any other medication in their regiment.  They give as much credence to the chemical details of their tinctures as they would their blood pressure medicine.  Essentially, not a lot!  They just want the products to work.

That said, the packaging strategy is of utmost importance. Rather than flashy brands and cute slogans, older people using cannabis products just want clear, easy to read instructions. Those cannabis brands that have not tailored their packaging to meet the needs of seniors may lead producers to view older generations as not loyal. This is not the case according to Tice. She has found that once a senior finds a product that works, they will stick with it and buy that product repeatedly.

Help Them Understand the Benefit

The first time Tice’s mom tried cannabis, there was a noticeable improvement. “She literally started walking differently after about 20 minutes,” she said, “and eventually she turned to me and said ‘I feel good!’” Fortuitously, Tice was recording the whole experience and eventually turned that quote from her mom into her phone’s ringtone. While this kind of documentation might be extreme, having testimonials from others helps people feel more comfortable about their engaging in cannabis as a therapeutic option.  Octavia hosts social events with seniors, and often asks clients for photos of them using products at these gatherings, and to write about their experiences.  “It is extremely helpful for this audience to see other people that look like them, as it helps them to relate and relax.”   Plus, Tice explains, “this population speaks up about what they want and how they want it!  We listen and implement their suggestions in our product development.”

When my dad was using cannabis during his cancer battle, we were lucky enough to have our neighbor be our caregiver. Even with that support, there were still times when he didn’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring out how to get the pot into his system. Even when people are in acute pain, sometimes inaction seems like the best route.

For others, the procurement and support process is not so easy. They have to figure out where to go and which type of cannabis is best for them. That is why I applaud Tice’s efforts to help the elderly in making this important decision. It might not be the easiest conversation you have ever had with your parents, but if you find a way to bring them relief with cannabis, your efforts will be greatly rewarded.