Sept. 20, 2019

Dollars to action: $1.5M in funding scales up harm reduction services for older adults

Lead researcher Lara Nixon says Canada Health funds go beyond the academic
Lara Nixon is the lead researcher on a new harm reduction project at Peter Coyle Place.
Lara Nixon is the lead researcher on a new harm reduction project at Peter Coyle Place. O'Briend Institute for Public Health

For low-income seniors in Calgary living with addiction, the struggle to find and keep housing is all-consuming.

But now thanks to Health Canada funds, Peter Coyle Place, one of the few options available, will receive bolstered funds that will go toward creating a supportive community for older adults who have addiction and mental health challenges.

Dr. Lara Nixon, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health, is leading the team that received the funding. In part, the funds will be used to sustain, expand and evaluate recreational services at Calgary’s Peter Coyle Place (PCP), which offers primary health care, supportive housing, and services grounded in harm reduction, including community-building activities such as trivia or lawn games, for older people who are using substances.

“It’s not just academic, it’s very much about putting the dollars to action as much as we can — that’s the purpose of the whole project,” says Nixon, a family physician who has worked at PCP for a number of years. Nixon is shown above. 

The team which received the funds — including six members of the O’Brien Institute — cumulatively has decades of experience working on harm-reduction, and includes experienced researchers at the forefront of addictions, mental health, social work, medication prescribing, and care for the elderly.

PCP operates differently than other shelters in the city. It doesn’t require people to leave during the day, and has no dedicated funding for non-substance-related activities. This new money will allow PCP to hire a recreational therapist, a full time addiction and mental health nurse, and two additional support workers.

“That’s what’s really exciting for us about this opportunity from Health Canada, they funded three full-time staff members who aren’t health service providers. To us, it’s a really good testament to the kind of thinking and ideas that we need,” Nixon says.

“It’s come full circle, and I’m learning more every day, from the staff and from the residents themselves,” she says.

The ratio of support workers at the facility sits at about one staff member to 23 residents, and while the increased staff won’t bring PCP to the ratio Nixon and the team would like to see, she says it’s a start.

Alison Loewen and Doug Matheson at Peter Coyle Place.

Alison Loewen and Doug Matheson at Peter Coyle Place.

O'Brien Institute for Public Health

Doug Matheson, a resident in recovery at Peter Coyle Place and a member of the advisory board for recreational activities, says he hopes his input, and the input from others on the board, will create more activities, which will help additional people participate in programming in the future.

“You meet people, and you laugh and joke,” Matheson says. He believes that increased staffing will have a positive impact on the effectiveness of the service provided at the facility.

“There’s 70 to 75 people here, and everyone is an individual, they have their own needs, their own habits, routines, and it’s hard to please everyone all the time, so more full-time staff I think would be a great benefit.”

PCP’s manager of client care, Alison Loewen, says the funds help acknowledge the work that’s being done at PCP.  “We have an incredible reputation and we want to replicate that at other places,” she says.

The second of the project’s aims is to consult with an Indigenous stakeholder advisory group to oversee a needs assessment of local Indigenous agencies and organizations, older Indigenous adults with lived experience of problematic substance use/addiction and homelessness, about their housing needs and preferences.

Nixon says Indigenous people are over-represented within the city’s older homeless community, and hopes the funding will help with future harm reduction services, influenced by the needs and preferences of this particular community.

In addition to Nixon, the team of researchers behind this initiative includes Drs. Martina Kelly, MD, Rita Henderson, PhD, Neil Drummond, PhD, in collaboration with Drs. Kerry McBrien, MD, Jazmin Marlinga, MD, Helen Bouman, MD, Paula Pearce, MD, Janet Tapper, MD, PhD, and Dr. Victoria Burns, PhD, (Faculty of Social Work) and Lawrence Braul, chief executive officer, Trinity Place Foundation of Alberta.

The project also has multiple community partners, including Alberta Health Services and The Alex Community Health Centre.