Ageing through discrimination


Three older people walk together

Regardless of your physical fitness, ageing comes with some health concerns which when combined with alcohol and other drug use can exacerbate issues or present new challenges to your physical and mental health.

Older people living with alcohol and other drug dependence are some of the most vulnerable members of our communities and like all ageing Australians they experience many challenges. Accessing health and community services as you age can be difficult, but combined with the effects of stigmatisation and discrimination associated with alcohol and drug dependence, can lead to physical and mental health issues.

Alcohol and Other Drugs and our ageing population

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 showed that people in their 60s were the age group most likely to drink alcohol well above the Australian guidelines, drinking on average five of more drinks on at least five days per week. The instances of high alcohol consumption on a single occasion, or binge drinking, was also on the rise among people in their 50s and 60s between 2013 and 2016.

The 'Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol', which were developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council, recommend the following:

  • "For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion (immediate harm)."
  • "For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury."

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report on treatment for alcohol and other drug dependence, in 2018 the average age of someone on opioid pharmacotherapy is 42 and data shows that the population of people over the age of 40 who are living with or have been alcohol and drug dependent is increasing.

Pharmacotherapy treats dependency on opioids such as morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone and heroin by replacing these with prescribed methadone or buprenorphine (including buprenorphine-naloxone) in NSW this treatment is available through the NSW Opioid Treatment Program (OTP). Methadone or buprenorphine gives people a chance to stop their illicit or problematic opioid use so they can focus on improving their health and lifestyle, and prepare for eventually staying drug-free.

These findings raise some grave concerns for people aged 50 and above, who are engaged in increased or regular alcohol and other drug use. It also signals that more people in their later years will have complex health concerns and needs in the future, calling on empathetic and considered care.

Getting help

According to researchers Roger Nicholas and Ann M Roche from Australia's National Research Centre and Alcohol and Other Drugs Workforce Development (NCETA) at Flinders University, "Older people may be reluctant to ask for help. They may feel embarrassed, or that they shouldn't need support. Longer-term users of specialist services may also be reluctant to re-engage in treatment as a result of perceptions that they have 'failed'. Some may also think that it is too late to change."

These perceptions, sometimes shared by others, are not only unhelpful but can be overcome by working with specialist services that have knowledge and skills in addressing the needs of people with substance use issues. Options for treatment include one-to-one support, counselling and support groups. Nicholas and Roche suggest, groupwork can also "help address loneliness and isolation, a common underlying cause of substance use problems."

According to Dr Sandro Demaio from ABC Life, "Staying active and maintaining a close community of friends and family is the final piece of the healthy ageing puzzle."

Engaging in regular social activity, exercise, eating healthy and mental stimulation reduces the risk of falls, injuries and chronic disease. The NSW Active and Healthy website assists older people and health professionals to find physical activities and fall prevention programs across NSW - there are over 1,000 programs listed.

For more information on the different types of treatment options for you or someone you care about facing alcohol and other drug issues, read In focus: Alcohol and other drug treatment and support.

For free and confidential advice give an Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) counsellor a call on 1800 250 015, they are available 24 hours, 7 days a week to provide confidential support and advice.

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