FOR many Australians, this holiday season will be a time of great joy. Family and friends will gather to celebrate Christmas and to ring in the new year. They will feast on great meals, raise toasts to good wishes and settle down to talk about the step-changes in their lives over the past year. They will tease out the worries of the world, plan summer holidays and muse about what might happen in 2013. Perhaps they will look beyond their own lives and ask what more can be done for others.

Each of us could create a little joy simply by turning to the older ones among us, those with generations of stories to share. Ask how they are faring right now. You may find some are doing it very hard indeed, and not just financially. As the first wave of Australia's estimated 5.5 million baby boomers turn 65 - 250,000 turned 65 last year - it is important to recognise that many older Australians are struggling with demons such as loneliness, anxiety or frustration and, in turn, they are abusing alcohol, prescription medication and illicit drugs as a method of coping. Some who may have been using such substances for years might not have moderated their intake despite the onset of physiological changes and, possibly, in disregard of other conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and so on.

A study of 421 Australians aged over 60 has found 23 per cent are consuming alcohol at hazardous levels and 7 per cent of older men are binge drinking at least once a week. At any age, such drinking should be of concern. Alcohol is a leading cause of multiple diseases including cancers, liver cirrhosis, heart disease and diabetes. Far too often it is a contributing factor in fatal and injurious road accidents, domestic violence and street assaults. Alcohol can be particularly damaging to older people whose bodies are not as effective at processing it as they might have been 30 years earlier. It is also a depressive, so drinking to lighten the sad times can turn quickly into a downwards spiral.

Yet, as The Age's Shane Green reported on Friday, with the proportion of people aged over 65 forecast to double by 2050 - from about one in eight to one in four - there is justifiable concern that this largely unseen problem of substance abuse among older people will become more significant. The social and financial costs to the community will rise accordingly. While many medical practitioners and specialists no doubt witness daily the impact of substance abuse among baby boomers and older generations, the rest of the community seems to have turned a blind eye. Government spending traditionally has been aimed at curbing abuse among younger generations or those perceived as being most at risk, including women, young men and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But there is an urgent need to understand the particular forces at play among older generations.

In Victoria, Peninsular Health has been operating a specialist unit to assist older people overcome substance abuse, but it can only afford to employ the equivalent of 2.5 full-time staff. Education programs are a start, but the practical implementation of appropriately targeted medical care is essential. Models similar to that of the Older Wiser Lifestyle unit at Peninsular Health, incorporating the services of psychologists in tandem with medical practitioners, are needed on a much bigger scale. Regional centres must not be ignored.

We owe it to older generations to attend better to their needs. That surely is not too much to ask as this nation inherits and enjoys the unprecedented prosperity they helped create.

 

Political plays fail economy

IT WOULD be churlish of The Saturday Age not to welcome Treasurer Wayne Swan's statement that a 2012-13 budget surplus is unlikely. A week ago, we condemned the folly of pursuing surpluses regardless of the economic climate. Outside the political game, Mr Swan's move was widely hailed as responsible and realistic. We should expect nothing less from leaders who aspire to be good economic managers.

The problem for Julia Gillard and her government is that the promise of a surplus took on the political weight of a sacred vow (and its belated ditching was politically inept) and politicians seemingly took leave of their economic senses. Coalition frontbencher Christopher Pyne recently said: ''If there had been a Coalition government for the last five years … I think most people accept that we would have had continuing surpluses.'' Global financial crisis and recessions? No problem. Budgeting is treated as if it were economic management - and Mr Pyne, later claiming he was taken too literally, then said his point was about economic management. It is putting the cart before the horse to act as if recording a budget surplus takes care of the economy. Yet the Coalition has long said it will cut harder than Labor, as it must to deliver a surplus in its first budget. How would that help the economy? Opposition Leader Tony Abbott reasserted the surplus pledge, ''based on current figures''. It seems he is mindful of the revenue collapse Mr Swan revealed (spending was $1.3 billion under budget).

A new concern arises: might the government be tempted to spend big before the election? That would be as unjustifiable as the fetishistic pursuit of a surplus, which has derailed sensible economic debate. Mr Swan knows, though, that Labor ''fell short on the politics'' and has given the Coalition a big stick to wield until polling day. Mr Abbott immediately waved it: ''You just can't trust this government to manage the economy.'' In fact, the economy has done well, according to most measures and independent experts. The game-playing over surpluses would be a meaningless farce but for its likely electoral consequences.