Overmedication of Dementia Patients by Nursing Home

Antipsychotic medications (such as Abilify, Seroquel, Risperdal, and Zyprexa) are among the most commonly prescribed medications in the country. But a bombshell report released by Human Rights Watch has found that tens of thousands of elderly patients with dementia are being inappropriately prescribed antipsychotic drugs.

The study states that nearly 180,000 residents in long-term nursing facilities are receiving these unapproved medications. What’s more, it’s believed that roughly 15,000 nursing home residents die each year from anti-psychotic abuse. The use of these drugs against their intended purpose needlessly places vulnerable patients in harm’s way and speaks to a larger epidemic of overmedication in the United States.

Caring for Elderly Dementia Patients

Dementia is a progressive decrease in mental function, spiraling from mild to moderate to severe impairment with time. Over five million people in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. Individuals with dementia will begin to lose their memory, demonstrate poor judgment and reasoning skills, and develop life-threatening health issues.

Given these profound changes, it’s critical that patients are made as comfortable as possible and supervised closely. In cases of advanced dementia, individuals are given palliative care meant to ease the irreversible symptoms of mental decline. This is when antipsychotics and their use as makeshift chemical restraints come into play.

The Hard Facts About Antipsychotic Overmedication

A 2010 CMS report found that over 17 percent of all nursing home patients were receiving antipsychotic medications that exceeded the recommended levels on a daily basis. As many as 1 in 5 patients in nearly 16,000 nursing homes are given antipsychotic drugs that are not only unnecessary but also extremely dangerous for older patients. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not believe antipsychotic drugs are an effective or safe way to treat symptoms associated with dementia. This also includes any dementia-related psychosis, for which there is no approved medication. And while today there are 5 million patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, it’s believed that number will increase to 16 million by 2050. We’re looking at a problem that will only grow, if not tackled aggressively now.

The Roots of an Epidemic

Nationwide antipsychotic overmedication can be traced to two factors. The first is poorly trained or understaffed nursing home facilities. The second is the push to medicate first, ask questions later.

When used properly, medications are a vital way to treat mental illnesses. But many nursing homes have become too reliant on medication as a “cure all”, encouraged by major pharmaceutical companies. Care providers may opt to place a difficult dementia patient on an antipsychotic in order to calm them. While this makes for a docile patient, the impact on a person’s already diminished mental state is profound. Serious health complications (like an undiagnosed broken hip, for instance) can go undetected and their quality of life will suffer.

Warning Signs of Overmedication

Although an effort led by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has reduced the use of antipsychotic drugs by 35%, there’s still more work to be done. If you believe a loved one has been overmedicated by their nursing home, some common red flags include:

  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Erratic behavior or personality changes
  • Oversleeping
  • Unusual physical ailments or health complications

Misused anti-psychotic medication carries its own unique hazards. It’s believed that atypical antipsychotics triple the risk of death or hospitalization after even a month of use. It has also been found that dementia patients on antipsychotics have a mortality rate double that of patients who do not take antipsychotics.  Antipsychotic drugs have also been linked to brain injury, stroke, chest infections, and symptoms that resemble Parkinson’s disease.

Getting Justice in Court

There are a lot of nursing home lawsuits and other claims manifesting this anger towards the overmedication of nursing home residents.

In 2013, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson along with several of their subsidiaries were sued by the government on claims that they inappropriately promoted antipsychotic drugs to nursing homes. The parties reached a settlement worth over $2 billion. Under the settlement, J&J subsidiary Janssen admitted that sales representatives promoted the antipsychotic medication Risperdal to control dementia symptoms in elderly patients.

A California nursing home was hit with a lawsuit claiming it had given patients antipsychotic drugs without informed consent. The suit, brought by the families of elderly patients, was eventually settled for $655,000 in 2013.

In 2018, a Tennessee nursing home settled a lawsuit alleging it had overmedicated residents to make them easier to manage. The suit specifically claimed that a female patient was given heavy doses of antipsychotic and anti-anxiety drugs, seriously harming her health. The nursing home agreed to a $500,000 settlement.

Contact Miller & Zois Today

Do you know an elderly family member or spouse who has received antipsychotics or other medication they didn’t need? Our law firm handles serious injury and death nursing home negligence and abuse cases. Call us at 800-553-8082 or get a free online case review.