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AARP Bulletin

Drug Abuse: Antipsychotics in Nursing Homes

These dangerous medications are prescribed at an alarming rate without the patient's consent

Illustration of man in wheelchair, Antipsychotics

Antipsychotics may trigger serious side effects in patients with Alzheimer's disease. — Dung Hoang

En español l When Patricia Thomas, 79, went into a Ventura, Calif., nursing home with a broken pelvis, the only prescriptions she used were for blood pressure and cholesterol, and an inhaler for her pulmonary disease. By the time she was discharged 18 days later, she "wasn't my mother anymore," says Kathi Levine, 57, of Carpinteria, Calif. "She was withdrawn, slumped in a wheelchair with her head down, chewing on her hand, her speech garbled." Within weeks, she was dead.

Thomas, a former executive assistant, had been given so many heavy-duty medications, including illegally administered antipsychotics, by the Ventura Convalescent Hospital in November of 2010 that she could no longer function. If one drug caused sleeplessness and anxiety, she was given a different medication to counteract those side effects. If yet another drug induced agitation or the urge to constantly move, she was medicated again for that.

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"Yes, my mom had Alzheimer's, but she wasn't out of it when she went into the nursing home. She could dress and feed herself, walk on her own. You could have a conversation with her," says Levine. "My mother went into Ventura for physical therapy. Instead, she was drugged up to make her submissive. I believe that my mother died because profit and greed were more important than people."

A Ventura County Superior Court judge agreed that Levine had a legitimate complaint against the nursing home. In May, attorneys from the law firm Johnson Moore in Thousand Oaks, Calif., joined by lawyers from AARP Foundation, agreed to a settlement in an unprecedented class-action suit against the facility for using powerful and dangerous drugs without the informed consent of residents or family members. "It is the first case of its kind in the country, and hopefully we can replicate this nationwide," says attorney Kelly Bagby, senior counsel for AARP Foundation Litigation.

A national problem

Tragically, what happened to Patricia Thomas is not an isolated incident. According to Charlene Harrington, professor of nursing and sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, as many as 1 in 5 patients in the nation's 15,500 nursing homes are given antipsychotic drugs that are not only unnecessary, but also extremely dangerous for older patients. The problem, experts say, stems from inadequate training and chronic understaffing, as well as an aggressive push by pharmaceutical companies to market their products.

"The misuse of antipsychotic drugs as chemical restraints is one of the most common and long-standing, but preventable, practices causing serious harm to nursing home residents today," says Toby Edelman, an attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington, D.C. "When nursing facilities divert funds from the care of residents to corporate overhead and profits, the human toll is enormous."

Next page: Kickbacks to doctors. »

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