Overmedicating, Wrong Medication, and Nursing Home Abuse
A seemingly inescapable fact of life is that as one ages, the chances of being prescribed drugs increase. Cancer, heart disease, and stroke, the three biggest killers of the elderly, require numerous medications; and high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease are also common reasons why older people are prescribed drugs. In fact, according to AARP, Americans 75 and older take on average more than 11 different drugs over the course of a year. A 2003 Families USA study reported that while seniors comprise 13 percent of US population, they account for almost 35 percent of all prescriptions filled. Ninety percent of Medicare beneficiaries use prescription drugs.
Given these facts, one would hope that properly managing patient medication would be a high priority in nursing homes. In well-run facilities this is the case -- proper staffing and procedures ensure nurses have the time to verify each patient is receiving all and only the medications he or she has been prescribed. Unfortunately, however, giving patients the wrong medication and overmedicating patients are too-frequent forms of nursing home abuse in poorly managed and operated nursing homes.
Abuse of this type can take several forms. In cases where the nursing home is understaffed, overworked nurses may make mistakes or become careless and give a patient drugs prescribed for another. The ramifications are serious: if one patient receives someone else's high-blood-pressure medication instead of her own diabetes medication, not only are both patients failing to be treated for conditions they do have, but they also run the risk of dangerous interactions and side effects from the drug they're not supposed to be taking. Furthermore, some drugs require steady, consistent use in order to be effective and safe; on-again, off-again use may also cause harm.
Overmedicating / Chemical Restraint
The situation described above, while certainly dangerous, would usually be a form of unintentional abuse. But medication-related abuse of nursing home residents can also take a more sinister form. Unscrupulous staff may intentionally give patients drugs they have not been prescribed or higher doses of ones they have. And, even more disturbingly, immoral administrators may condone or even encourage such behavior. One California nursing home director was charged with "chemically restraining" patients by giving them -- and in some cases forcing them to take -- powerful anti-psychotic drugs when they complained or annoyed her. Sadly, at least three patients died as a result.
Unfortunately, over-drugging is reported to be a common problem in US nursing homes, and a growing one. Since physically restraining patients with belts and straps is now illegal except as a last resort, some experts suggest that drugs are being used instead when nursing home staff feel the need to control difficult patients. While it is not legal to use drugs to chemically restrain a patient, such practices are acknowledged to be widespread. In fact, estimates are that a quarter of nursing home patients are given anti-psychotics. The result can be a serious decrease in quality of life or even death -- a shocking 15,000 nursing home patients die each year because of unnecessary anti-psychotics, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Watch for Signs
If your loved one's health or behavior changes erratically, if he or she starts developing unusual physical symptoms, or if he or she grows more lethargic or confused, medication-related abuse may be at fault. If at all possible, visit the nursing home when medications are dispensed to see whether care is taken to ensure that the correct drugs and dosages are given to patients. Ask to see a log of the drugs given to your loved one. And if you do suspect that your loved one has been improperly medicated, ask a doctor to run tests. Furthermore, you should contact a nursing home abuse lawyer to discuss the problem and your legal rights.
John Hendren, "3 Nursing Home Patients Killed by 'Chemical Restraints': California Attorney General Says Nursing Director Drugged Patients to Control Them", 5 January 2010, http://abcnews.go.com/WN/abc-world-news-deadly-chemical-restraints-kill-california/story?id=9483981
Allan Rubin and Harold Rubin, "Prescription Drugs and the Elderly", 27 August 2010, http://www.therubins.com/geninfo/eldpresc.htm