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Dazed and Confused: Chemical Restraint in Nursing Homes

The transition to living in a nursing home can be overwhelming and stressful. A change from independent life to assisted living often makes our elderly loved ones angry, frustrated, and anxious. It is no surprise that before nursing homes were so heavily regulated, the use of sedatives as a means to calm rowdy patients was a widespread practice. Using sedatives to calm an elderly nursing home resident is referred to as “chemical restraint,” and it involves the use of potent antipsychotic and other psychoactive drugs to involuntarily sedate unruly patients.

Common types of sedatives are benzodiazepines and antipsychotics, which tend to produce a calming effect. Around 300,000 nursing home patients are receiving some kind of antipsychotic drug to combat the anxiety and aggression frequently found with dementia as a byproduct of Alzheimer’s disease. Drugs like Seroquel and Risperdal are effective in the fight against dementia and other psychotic disorders, but should only be used as a last resort. Additionally, Federal and state laws prohibit the use of chemical restraint for the convenience of nursing home staff. Chemical restraint may only be used if patients pose a threat to themselves or others. Federal and state regulations have done wonders to prevent doping of healthy patients, but cases of unwarranted chemical restraint are all too common.

For example, a lawsuit was recently filed in Chesapeake, Virginia, accusing nursing home staff members of practicing chemical restraint. 84-year-old nursing home patient Alice Mackey claims that she was tied down by two nurses and injected with a heavy sedative. Mackey claims that the restraint was purely to “silence” her. After she was sedated, Mackey was left bound to a wheelchair for the remainder of the night, where she ended up urinating on herself and was left to sit in her own filth.

The lawsuit also claims the nursing home did not notify Mackey’s daughter of the restraint and ultimately fired staff nurses who reported the incident. The nursing home then conducted a “clandestine and superficial review” to minimize negative publicity and liability. The lawsuit further claims another patient was tied down to a wheelchair at the same time Mackey was chemically restrained. Mackey and her family are seeking $17 million in damages.

The Department of Health conducted a review of the nursing home earlier, after complaints of chemical restraint on two other nursing home residents. The nursing home came up with a correction plan after this investigation, but it is alleged that the plan was not followed.

Laws state that chemical restraint should be used sparingly, if at all. When these psychoactive drugs are used on patients without mental disorders they can produce a myriad of life threatening side effects, including mental impairment, heart complications, and low blood pressure. Before a nursing home can chemically restrain a patient, they should first acquire a physician’s order and consent of the patient or the patient’s immediate family. Of course, an exception to this rule is in cases of extreme emergency.

According to the FDA, unnecessary use of antipsychotic drugs kills 15,000 nursing home patients every year. The drugs used to chemically restrain patients are often unnecessary and have adverse reactions with other medications the patient is taking. If you suspect your loved one is being illegally restrained by drugs or other sedatives, your loved one may have a case against the nursing home. First, you should take the necessary steps to ensure the future safety of your loved one. Next, call the nursing home attorneys at Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz to discuss the merits of your claim.