When we live in a provincially-regulated nursing home, we are likely in the frailest condition ever. The specific reasons why each one of us enters a care facility are many, but a commonality is that we require intense personal care for an indefinite period of time. We need assistance, as we suffer from chronic conditions which impair our capacity to live on our own and we rely on institutions to ensure our protection and well-being.

It is paradoxical then, that nursing home residents are likely to get started on drugs they don’t need, and that may even kill them.

A Toronto Star investigation revealed in April that provincially-regulated nursing homes in Ontario are routinely drugging residents to calm and restrain them when they are agitated, have a tendency to wander, or display aggressive behaviours. Thirty-three percent of Ontario’s nursing home residents are on an antipsychotic drug.

Remaining calm may not be what the patient needs, but rather what nursing homes need. Evidence suggests they are using drugs as a cost-effective way to deal with unwanted behaviour.

Warnings on drugs labels are unequivocal: for those of us suffering from dementia, antipsychotics are very dangerous.  These drugs increase our risk of death by 60 percent. Health Canada does not approve these drugs for elderly people with dementia, yet large numbers of nursing home residents who are on these drugs suffer from this condition.

While Ontario facilities are currently in the spotlight, similar stories appear on a recurrent basis across Canada. Provinces typically express concern. Policymakers establish new guidelines and promise to better educate doctors and stakeholders. They may even make data about drug use in nursing homes publicly accessible and come up with stricter regulations for nursing home care.

But they have not yet found the right remedy. As a result, large numbers of abused seniors suffer, are hospitalized and may even die.  More is needed to be done to ensure a better response to one of Canada’s most unethical social policy issues.

More effective solutions include better-designed, better-equipped and better-staffed homes, and provinces can use the instruments at their disposal to address these problems. But some of the necessary tools are not in their power. Effective leadership from the federal government is essential to provide ensure better funding and national standards.

How long will we be served dangerous drugs, when what we actually need is better provisions for long-term care?

Nicole F. Bernier
Nicole F. Bernier est chercheuse spécialisée en politiques de santé et conseillère-experte avec EvidenceNetwork.ca. De 2011 à 2016, elle a travaillé à titre de directrice de recherche à l'Institut de recherche en politiques publiques. Elle est l’auteure d’une étude de l’IRPP intitulée Improving Drug Safety for Canadian Seniors. @NicoleFBernier

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