The Qualitative Methods Journal Club (QMJC) is an SSA-funded initiative aimed at increasing knowledge of qualitative research practice. Colleagues from Deakin University (Australia) led the journal club in June 2023, where they discussed an article about the factors that contribute towards overdose deaths among older people. In their follow-up blog, they talk about ‘common misconceptions about older people who use heroin’ and how ‘age may actually help to protect them from overdose-related deaths’.

Through its close attention to people’s stories and lived experiences, the article disrupts one-dimensional depictions of drug use and shows how narrow, exclusionary treatment metrics and an episodic care system disadvantages older clients.

Dr Kiran Pienaar, Dr Ashleigh Haw, and Dr Kyja Noack-Lundberg chose an article from Sociology of Health and Illness for the June 2023 meeting of the QMJC. The qualitative study featured in-depth interviews with older people deemed most at risk of overdose, and combined insights from critical drug studies with ‘more-than-human’ approaches and a feminist ethic of care.

In their journal club blog, Dr Pienaar and colleagues write about how the study disrupts the ‘ageing cohort theory’ of overdose deaths, and instead shifts the focus to structural factors outside an individual’s locus of control, including “abstinence-oriented, punitive treatment systems”.

As they explain, the ageing cohort theory attributes the increase in overdose deaths in the UK to an “ageing cohort of people who use heroin with age-related health conditions that increase their risk of death from overdose”. In focusing on age-related complications, Dr Fomiatti and colleagues report that the ageing cohort theory “risks naturalising the deaths of older people who use heroin”, and furthermore may obscure some of the protective factors associated with older age.

“Contrary to government reports and media discourse, age may actually help to protect them from overdose-related deaths. Protective factors that participants reported include changes in routes of heroin administration (from injecting to smoking), skill and experience in managing drug effects, acceptance of drug use and valuing health – all factors that are neglected by the ageing cohort theory as it equates age with increased risk.”

Journal club members also praise the way that the article presents the perspectives of an “often-overlooked group of people who consume heroin”, and suggest that the clear, accessible writing style of the article “offers a good model for qualitative researchers in different fields”.

Original article: Drug fatalities and treatment fatalism: Complicating the ageing cohort theory. By Fay Dennis. Published in Sociology of Health and Illness (2021).

by Natalie Davies

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