When your loved one is in a nursing home, you want to be confident that he or she is receiving the best care possible, and that includes any medications given. Since it is not possible for you to be on hand all the time, you must depend on the experience and professionalism of others, but that does not mean that you should be kept out of the information loop.
When antipsychotics help
Antipsychotic drugs are intended for use by people who have severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. They work by altering the effect of certain chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, to change a person's mood, emotions and behavior. Older antipsychotics have been in use since the 1950s, and newer versions that are more effective for certain conditions were developed in the 1970s.
When antipsychotics harm
Antipsychotics are sometimes given to nursing home patients as chemical restraints. Such medications might be administered to keep a patient calm, when perhaps all the resident actually needs is some peace and quiet in contrast to the cacophony of a common room. People who are frail or who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia may react to antipsychotics with confusion, anxiety or disorientation. If misused, this kind of medication can even cause death.
How prescription misuse occurs
Overmedication is a common problem in nursing homes, and the issue is often blamed on staff shortcomings. Many certified nursing assistants do not receive enough training and are paid low wages despite the long hours they put in. As a result, there is often high employee turnover and the new hires may lack important knowledge about the needs of individual patients. Nursing home residents need a great deal of care, and in addition to insufficient and undertrained staff, there may also be too few physicians to administer oversight.
What you can do
Many kinds of medications are needed by the elderly. They can be used to treat an illness or condition, prevent a common ailment such as the flu or slow the progress of a serious disease. Family members should learn all they can about the medications being administered to their loved one. Taking an active role by speaking with the physician in charge of issuing prescriptions and asking questions of nursing home staff will be important to the health and comfort of the patient.
Remember that to administer drugs like antipsychotics, the law requires "informed consent" by the patient or the patient's family. If you have serious concerns about the care your loved one is receiving, you may wish to speak to an attorney who is experienced in elder care matters.