Harold Houghton’s daughter had no idea her elderly father had been given antipsychotic medications in his long-term care home until the information was inadvertently disclosed.
And Wendy Hodgson says the drugs were given to her father, who died last November, even though he had never been diagnosed with psychosis.
It’s one example in a troubling rise in the use of antipsychotic medications in B.C. nursing homes revealed in a new report.
“The issue is we’re using this medication for purposes for which it was not intended,” said Seniors Advocate Isobel MacKenzie.
Overall, antipsychotic medications were given to one-third of long-term care residents in B.C., an eight per cent increase over the previous year.The Monitoring Seniors Services 2021 report found the proportion of residents taking antipsychotic medications without a diagnosis of psychosis increased by seven per cent, to 27 per cent, from March 2020 to March 2021.
A mere five per cent of those getting these drugs had been diagnosed with psychosis.
“These are very, very powerful drugs, medications and they have impacts on your ability to safely mobilize, to walk about. They make people more sleepy, more drowsy. They can make you confused,” explained MacKenzie, who notes the medications can have a profound affect on frail seniors.
“It is worrisome that we’re seeing this increase in an environment where we had made a lot of progress in reducing the use. For whatever reason, B.C. is still stubbornly above the national average,” she said
The seniors advocate believes the pandemic, which has led to many disruptions for residents of long-term care including separation from family and less staffing, is contributing to more aggression.
“We also know that there are practices, more therapeutic practices to diffuse the agitation. But it takes time and so the availability of staff to engage with residents was also impacted by the pandemic, and that would have had an impact on their ability to practise gentle persuasion techniques,” she said.
Hodgson also believes the problem is due to “insufficient staff to deal with the situation properly.”
Mackenzie is worried about the long-term harm to seniors being treated with antipsychotic drugs.
“Sometimes you can start down a slippery slope that is very difficult to come back up, even once you are taken off the medications,” she said.
Brenda Howard, whose mom is in long-term care and who is part of the group Families for Change, is not surprised by the findings.
“I do know in our advocacy group, there have been many people complaining about their parents being drugged,” she said. “Especially people with dementia, not being able to see their families, that’s exacerbated (the situation). They are being drugged to keep them calmer.”
Howard is also unsurprised the same report found a 75 per cent increase in complaints to the Patient Care Quality Office about long-term care.
“They just refer you back to the care home that is making the rules and those rules are often in contravention of what our health officer has requested,” Howard told CTV News.
She believes that when family visits are cut off and activity programs aren’t running, no one should be surprised that the health of seniors will continue to decline.
The report did find fewer complaints to licensing offices, but Howard believes that’s only because families weren’t being allowed inside facilities or only had extremely limited access.
“We know of incidents where people have been left in washrooms on toilets over an hour, but when there’s no one to walk in on those situations, you’re not going to have complaints.”
Meanwhile, MacKenzie said the report uncovered some positive changes when it came to seniors in B.C.
She says the Safe Seniors, Strong Communities program proved a huge success.
“We saw four times as many services delivered to twice as many seniors and we engaged the generosity and goodwill and power of over 13,000 volunteers,” she said.