Dr. Nadine Ezard the Clinical Director of Alcohol and Drugs at St Vincent’s Hospital reacts to the report that more older people are using drugs
Introduction – Older People Using Drugs
Ross Greenwood: Welcome back to Work Life Money right around Australia. In the past few weeks, has it been a couple of celebrated examples of drug use in older Australians that really made me scratch my head. I would think that at some stage people would know better. Let’s put it that way.
One example is the Cronulla Sharks chairman and also chief executive of Hoyts Media, Damian Keogh, who resigned as chairman of the Cronulla Sharks. He was given an 18-month good behavior bond after being found with a bag of white powder said to be cocaine. Now, he’s 55 years old. This is outside a pub in Woolloomooloo in Sydney. Now, there was another one also. This is an argument that’s going on between Westpac, one of their big four banks and one of its most senior executives. This fellow, 42 years old, one of it’s most senior executives. Westpac is claiming he was fired after some issues in regards to drug taking and supply allegations.
Now, as I say, these are allegations but it made me really sit there and think, at what age does all that really go past you? But then we picked up a report suggesting that in fact there is an increasing usage of illicit drugs amongst older Australians. Now, this is the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. It basically says that the number of people ages 40 and over consuming risky levels of alcohol has also increased but on top of that, also illicit drugs. I thought, really?
Work life money. It’s not going to help you have money. It’s not going to help your life. It’s not going to help your work at all. That’s we’re about. Doctor Nadine is the clinical director of Drugs and Alcohol Services at St Vincent’s Hospital. She’s on the line right now. Many thanks for your time, Nadine.
Interview with Dr. Nadine Ezard, St Vincent’s Hospital
Nadine Ezard: Hi.
Ross Greenwood: Look, I don’t want to be a prude but I am shocked by this. I guess surely, older Australians at some stage learn and go, “No, that’s not what we do”. But what you’re saying with the survey is it’s what an increasing number of people are doing.
Nadine Ezard: That’s right. I mean, this is a survey that the Australian government conducts every three years. It’s a household survey so they get what’s called a representative sample of people at home and asking questions about what they’re using. It relies on respondents actually saying what they’re doing. Sometimes, for example, at the moment in the current climate people might be likely to under-report their methamphetamine because there’s a lot of discussion in the media about the dangers of methamphetamine use. We’ve seen that in the past when there is that level of fear around the drugs that people do under-report their use. That’s just the caveat on this study that it does rely on what people report and whether that actually reflects what they’re actually doing.
We do know that there is what’s called a cohort effect, that people that first started using drugs that their parent generation didn’t do, the so-called baby boomer generation. That generation was exposed to taking what are currently illegal drugs. They’re still doing it as they get older though it’s different to the previous generation. It’s something that seemed more commonly in this generation.
And it does mean that we need to think about talking about public health messages and reduction of harm related to drug use, targeting not just young people but also middle-aged and all the people. We are saying people. Clinically at my work, we see people into their 70s that are still running into problem with drug use and injection drug use. We do need to think about that group of people. Also increasingly, older people actually taking pharmaceutical drugs as well, which often prescribed to them. They might then not taking them in a way that’s not prescribed. We need to be looking across the age spectrum at the different drugs people are using and the harms that they might be experiencing.
Ross Greenwood: Nadine, I have seriously been leaving under a mushroom. You have just made my eyebrows raise quite significantly because I cannot imagine people in their 70s basically shooting up and trying to get their jollies out of injectable drugs. It’s just that I would have thought that I have gone and had a couple of Horlicks and a good lie down, or a Becks and a good lie down or something like that but this is something quite different.
As you point out, it’s almost cultural because it may very well be that those people have grown up during the ’60s and ’70s when, shall I say, recreational drug use started to grow in our community. So, as a result as they’ve gotten older and maybe got a bit more disposable income that they’ve done exactly the same thing.
Nadine Ezard: Exactly. Absolutely. And because people might be seen as being older by the general population doesn’t mean they’re different to how they were when they were younger. It doesn’t mean they respond differently to situations than when they were younger.
But of course the drug that we need to be most concerned about is alcohol. Alcohol is the drug that’s used by far greater proportion of the population than any of the other drugs. It’s the one that we see more harm with. As people get older, they may have been drinking at a risky level for 20, 30 years and they’re starting to see some of those harms related to alcohol that we do need to be trying to get in earlier to prevent people from spending longer, drinking at risky levels.
We know that there’s about a 20-year treatment gap from when people started drinking riskily to when they seek treatment. We need to bring that in earlier before people start getting harmed at any individual and also the community in a population level. We are seeing harms from alcohol going up even though alcohol use is reasonably stable. Younger people are starting to drink later and there are some very encouraging signs there but we’re seeing harms going up.
Ross Greenwood: Wow. It’s just incredible. Just some stats I’ll throw our people from this National Drug Strategy Household Survey. And again, think about what this is doing for your finances and what type of thing but leave that aside for a moment. Line up a group of people who are aged over 40. Imagine a group of people where one in six people aged over 40, one in six. Think about the people in the room. One in six of them are taking some form of illicit drug .
Now, replace them with a group of people aged over 60. So over 60s, people turning up the sampling to get their pension payments whatever it might be. Aged over 60, one in 14 of them is most likely taking illicit drugs. I mean again, I am a bit shocked by this. Maybe I’m a little bit of at wails in this regard, I’m not sure. But Nadine, it’s just is the social issue, it’s the community issue, and it’s the long-term impact on those people, their families and their lives that really is the key here, isn’t it?
Nadine Ezard: Absolutely. And the thing that we’re really arguing for is greater access to treatment and greater access to early interventions. Most of that drug and alcohol treatment facilities are completely overstretched at the moment. They’re very much only attracting people that are in a very serious end of drug and alcohol use problems. What we need is a lot more treatment capacity in the system, and to get in early, and to decrease the stigma around drug and alcohol use problems so that people are more likely to come forward and not feel shy. People should feel proud of coming forward. Their families should feel proud that they are coming forward for help earlier before they start running into really severe problems.
Ross Greenwood: I’ll tell you it really terrific to have you on the program. This, as I say, this work has come out of the National Drugs Strategy Household Survey but it’s also important that people like Doctor Nadine Ezard, the clinical director of Drugs an Alcohol Services at St Vincent’s hospital are right across it and seeing first hand the types of social impacts that these illicit drug use and alcohol use is having on aging Australians.
Nadine, we appreciate your time here on the program today.
Nadine Ezard: Thank you very much.
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