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QUESTION: I'm 63 years old and take no medications. Next month I'm scheduled for surgery, and my biggest fear is the pain I'll experience after the operation. My doctor says not to worry, because he'll prescribe a narcotic painkiller. I'm afraid I'll become addicted. Is this possible?

ANSWER: Possible, yes, though it is highly unlikely for a person to become addicted when drugs are used to relieve pain. As soon as the pain is gone, painkillers are generally no longer needed. For the drug addict, addiction is characterized by psychological need and usually begins in the absence of physical pain.Because acute pain is time-limited, many are reluctant to take a narcotic. However, acute pain that is improperly treated can result in nausea, insomnia, depression, weight loss and general debilitation. Some experts believe that acute pain, when not cared for properly, can become chronic over time. After most surgical procedures, narcotics are necessary for only a few days.

It is best to request a painkiller before pain becomes severe. By doing so, pain relief is greater, the dose can be smaller and side effects, if they occur at all, are usually minor and transitory. The most common include constipation, dry mouth, drowsiness and nausea or vomiting. Drowsiness and nausea may disappear after the first few days of taking a drug.

Just as pain tolerance varies from person to person, so does the response to narcotics. Some people experience relief from pain with only small doses, while others require larger doses.

Narcotics should be taken exactly as prescribed by a patient's physician. If a dose is missed, the next one should not be doubled; if the individual's pain is not being relieved, he should not take the drug more frequently without first contacting his physician.

QUESTION: Since Dad died, my mother now eats mostly sandwiches, TV dinners or skips meals altogether. At 65, she says she feels good, but I'm afraid her health will suffer if she doesn't start eating properly. How can I encourage her to do so?

ANSWER: Older adults often lose interest in eating after the loss of a spouse. Solitary dining can be unappealing after years of sharing meals with a loved one. But your mother can still enjoy mealtimes with others. She might invite friends for lunch or dinner, or organize a potluck, with each guest contributing a dish.

A poor diet can result in lack of energy, malnutrition and bad health. So, it's important for your mother to develop habits that make shopping and cooking more enjoyable.

She should make a shopping list and buy perishables in small amounts. She may save money by buying large economy packages of lean meat, poultry and fish, and re-wrapping and freezing them in meal-size portions.

Many older persons don't like the bother of preparing meals from scratch. But canned and frozen dinners are often more expensive and less nutritious than home-cooked meals, which can be just as quick and easy to prepare, says nutritionist Leslie Kessler with the Los Angeles Department of Aging.

Cookbooks with recipes for one or two diners can be found in bookstores and libraries. Leftovers from larger meals can be packaged in single servings, dated and frozen for later use.

Kessler also notes that today's mature cooks can get by with yesterday's appliances. If they have an oven, hand mixer, toaster and blender, they probably don't need a microwave, food processor or other fancy, often expensive, gadgets.


Send questions about growing older to On Aging, P.O. Box 84256, Los Angeles, CA 90073. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; individual answers cannot be provided.