Nursing Homes Use Antipsychotic Meds To Suppress Patients, Report Finds

By Kelly Burch 02/09/18

A new report from Human Rights Watch highlights the alarming use of "chemical restraints" on the elderly.

elderly woman

Each year, more than 179,000 Americans living in nursing homes are given antipsychotic medications without a proper diagnosis, largely in an attempt to make them more docile and easier to control, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch.

“People with dementia are often sedated to make life easier for overworked nursing home staff, and the government does little to protect vulnerable residents from such abuse,” said Hannah Flamm, NYU School of Law fellow at Human Rights Watch. “All too often, staff justify using antipsychotic drugs on people with dementia because they interpret urgent expressions of pain or distress as disruptive behavior that needs to be suppressed.”

There are federal regulations that bar using medications as “chemical restraints” for the convenience of staff. However, the practice remains widespread, Human Rights Watch found. Investigators also discovered that nursing homes are rarely punished even when the abuse is discovered.

The report is particularly alarming given that the use of antipsychotics doubles the risk of death in older people with dementia. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a “black box” warning on antipsychotics about the dangers of their use for people with dementia. They have never been approved for treatment of the condition.

A 62-year-old nursing home patient who was given Seroquel told investigators: “[It] knocks you out. It’s a powerful, powerful drug. I sleep all the time. I have to ask people what the day is.”

It’s common for these medications to be given without consent from the patient or their healthcare proxy. One nursing home staffer said that even when the homes technically seek approval from family members for using the drugs, the conversations are usually misleading.

“The facility usually gets informed consent like this: they call you up [the healthcare proxy],” the staffer said. “They say, ‘X, Y, and Z is happening with your mom. This is going to help her.’ Black box warning? ‘It’s best just not to read that.’”

Flamm said that the issue of overmedicating should concern people with family members in care, and taxpayers who often carry the burden of paying for all those unnecessary medications.

“The U.S. government pays nursing homes tens of billions of dollars per year to provide safe and appropriate care to residents,” she said. “Officials have a duty to ensure that these often vulnerable people are protected rather than abused.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.