A year and a half ago in a Texas nursing home, I met an 84-year-old resident with dementia named Felipa Natividad. Her sister, Aurora Suarez, told me that the staff dosed Natividad with Haldol, an antipsychotic drug, to ease the burden of bathing her. “They give my sister medication to sedate her on the days of her shower: Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” Suarez said. “They give her so much she sleeps through the lunch hour and supper.” A review of Natividad’s medical chart confirmed the schedule.
Suarez said she had given her consent to use the drugs because she feared that the staff would not bathe her sister enough if she refused. But when Suarez saw the effect they had, she had second thoughts. She expressed them to the nursing home, but Natividad was taken off the antipsychotics only after she was placed in hospice care. She died a few months after my interview. Her family, seeing her in a reduced state and unable to communicate, wondered whether the drugs had compounded the losses associated with dementia; Suarez thought they contributed to her sister’s decline. “She gets no nourishment,” she told me not long before Natividad died.
The use of antipsychotic drugs as chemical restraints — for staff convenience or to “discipline” a resident — has a long history in nursing homes. In 1975, the Senate released a report, “Drugs in Nursing Homes: Misuse, High Costs, and Kickbacks,” documenting some of the same trends we still see, more than 40 years later. In the past decade, many manufacturers of antipsychotic drugs have faced civil and criminal penalties for misbranding the medications to promote them as appropriate for treating older people with dementia. For more than a decade, the Food and Drug Administration has required manufacturers to place the strongest caution, known as a “black box warning,” on the packaging to advise against the medicines’ use in these patients; such drugs almost double the risk of death for them and have never been approved as safe or effective for treating symptoms of dementia. Despite the warning, nursing homes still often administer antipsychotic drugs in this manner, sometimes without seeking informed consent first, in violation of federal regulations and human rights norms.
– The Washington Post