Antipsychotic Drug Use for Dementia Should be Closely Monitored by Doctors & Family Members

Are you a family member or guardian of someone that suffers from dementia? Is s/he living in a nursing home? Do you know what medications s/he is taking? Do you know what the dosages are? When was the last time those medications were reevaluated to determine if they are helping in any way, or if they are even necessary? These are all important questions to keep in mind and to continue asking the administrators of the nursing home and the physicians who care for your loved one.

On March 10, 2010, Massachusetts joined a federal suit against Johnson & Johnson for paying millions of dollars in kickbacks to Omnicare, Inc., the largest pharmacy in the US that specializes in providing drugs to nursing home facilities. United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz argues in the complaint that substantial monetary kickbacks can be especially harmful in the nursing home context because nursing home patients have little to no control over the medical care they receive. He states: “Nursing home doctors should be able to rely on the integrity of the recommendations they receive from pharmacists, and those recommendations should not be a product of money that a drug company is paying to the pharmacy.”

risperdalThe primary drug at issue in this case is Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug that is usually prescribed for patients with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. It is legal to prescribe antipsychotics for “off label” uses to treat people with dementia, but these drugs may also raise the risk of death among such patients. At the same time, antipsychotics can help patients with dementia suffering from extreme agitation and sleeplessness. When prescribed in small doses, these drugs can actually have amazing effects on making the lives of patients with dementia more bearable. However, it is important that the prescriptions and dosages be reevaluated regularly to determine their effectiveness and potential harm to the patient.

On March 8, 2010, the Boston Globe reported that 2,483 nursing home residents in Massachusetts were treated with powerful antipsychotic drugs in 2009. This data was collected by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medical Services, and Massachusetts has the 12th highest rate in the nation for nursing home patients on antipsychotic drugs. While these statistics may appear alarming at first glance, any good researcher knows they don’t paint the whole picture. Many patients with dementia are only put on small doses that do not harm them in order to lower their agitation and improve their sleeping habits, but it is also critical not to simply overlook these statistics. As noted earlier, two after the data was published in the Boston Globe, Massachusetts joined an important federal suit against one of the drug companies that promotes these potentially harmful practices.

It is extremely important to be educated and informed regularly about the drugs your loved one is taking, especially if s/he is in a nursing home. While issues concerning antipsychotic drugs are currently making headlines, it will take individual conversations to ensure that your loved ones are being treated appropriately. Sometimes antipsychotic drugs are extremely beneficial for a patient with dementia, but if not administered properly, they can also be very damaging. Open communications between you, the patient, the patient’s guardian (if that is not you), the patient’s primary care physician, and the administrators at the nursing home s/he lives at, will make it possible to ensure that your loved one is on the right medication so that s/he is safe and comfortable.


  1. For information on alternatives to these medications, an ElderLaw Report article is available online:

    Also, a bibliography is posted at:

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