Advocacy, Antipsychotic drugs

let’s get dead right about dementia and dangerous drugs


Efforts to reduce antipsychotic use in dementia care are starting to bear fruit, but a lot of work remains to be done.

(Accepted for publication by the Journal of the American Medical Association 161201; © 2016 under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license

Some people say the only way to manage behaviours and symptoms that have become associated with dementia is to medicate people with dementia. Those people are dead wrong. Yes, antipsychotics such as risperdone, quetiapine, and others may be used judiciously to address potentially dangerous situations and/or real psychosis. However, geriatricians and eldercare experts worldwide agree[i] that when antipsychotic medication is given to elderly people with dementia it should beat the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time and always after all other avenues have been tried and have failed. In other words, these medications should only be used as a last resort.[ii]

Emerging facts show the percentage of people with dementia who benefit from antipsychotics is small, the risks may not be worth it, and there are better, more effective, non-pharmacological ways of improving the quality of life of those who live with the disease as well as that of those who are their care partners. AND, ample evidence proves the use of antipsychotics in elders with dementia can be successfully reduced.

Let’s start with the United Kingdom. In 2008, an all-party parliamentary group on dementia in the UK produced a 36-page report: “Always a last resort: inquiry into the prescription of antipsychotic drugs to people with dementia living in care homes.[iii] Essentially, the group found the over prescription of antipsychotics to be a “significant problem in many care homes” due to a:

  • lack of dementia care training
  • lack of leadership in care homes
  • dearth of person-centered care

The report spurred the UK government to create a national dementia strategy[iv] in 2009; it focussed on three key areas:

  1. improved awareness
  2. early diagnosis
  3. higher quality of care

The government also commissioned dementia care expert Dr. Sube Banerjee to produce an independent review on the use of antipsychotics in elderly people with dementia in the UK. The report concluded:

  • antipsychotic use was too high in patients with dementia
  • the associated risks outweighed the benefits in most cases
  • drugs seemed to have only a limited positive effect in managing dementia symptoms
  • antipsychotics seemed to be used too often as a first-line response to difficult behaviour in dementia (most often agitation), rather than as a considered second-line treatment when other non-pharmacological approaches have failed

On the basis of these findings, the UK government pledged to reduce by two-thirds the use of antipsychotics for people with dementia by November 2011. It was an extremely ambitious target. Nevertheless, in June 2012, the UK National Dementia and Antipsychotic Prescribing Audit Summary Report showed that while the number of newly diagnosed people with dementia increased by almost 68 per cent between 2006 and 2011, there was a 60 per cent decrease in the number of people with dementia receiving prescriptions of antipsychotic medication (i.e. down from about 17 per cent in 2006 to about 7 per cent in 2011).  While the UK missed its goal of a 66 per cent reduction, its achievement of a 52 per cent decrease in two years is remarkable.

UK dementia antipsychotic 2012 w arrows

In May 2016, the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement (CFHI) reported the results of a pan-Canadian initiative to reduce the inappropriate use of antipsychotic medication among seniors in long-term care facilities.[v] The CFI identified five specific problems with antipsychotic drugs:

  • they are not the best strategy for managing dementia
  • they are associated with cognitive decline (i.e. they worsen dementia)
  • they can cause serious harm, including premature death
  • the prescriptions are expensive
  • the associated complications from overuse are even more expensive

The Foundation’s initiative, implemented in 56 long-term care facilities across seven Canadian provinces resulted in reducing or discontinuing antipsychotic use in 54 percent of the 416 residents who participated in the study over the course of a year. Fifteen Foundation-supported teams established “more patient-centred, team-based and data driven approaches to care” in the 56 facilities. By the end of the project antipsychotic use was completely eliminated in 36 percent of the participants (150 people); it was reduced in another 18 percent (75 people). Reducing the use of antipsychotics also resulted in:

  • fewer falls (down 20 per cent)
  • less verbally abusive behaviour (down 33 per cent)
  • less physically abusive behaviour (down 28 per cent)
  • less socially inappropriate behaviour (down 26 per cent)
  • less resistance to care (down 22 per cent)

Most important of all, the residents experienced a better quality of life, and their families “got their loved ones back.”

In the course of the collaborative, the CFHI found “a troubling discrepancy across jurisdictions concerning the use of antipsychotics in long-term care (LTC) without a diagnosis of psychosis.” In other words, people who live with dementia but who have not been diagnosed with psychosis are being given drugs that are designed for people who have been diagnosed with psychosis, and the practice varied widely between regions as well as between individual facilities.

According to the CFHI’s report, only six Canadian provinces and territories publicly report on potentially inappropriate use of antipsychotics in LTC. Usage ranges from a low of 21.1 per cent of people in Alberta LTC homes to nearly double that (38.2 per cent) in Newfoundland. Québec, the province in which I reside, is one of those for which such data is not available. However, given that the rate of prescription of antipsychotic medication to the elderly in Quebec is three times that of Alberta,[vi] one can only imagine the frightening amounts of unnecessary antipsychotics that are currently being given to elderly Quebeckers with dementia in long-term care facilities. Tellingly, and tragically, no Quebec facilities participated in the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement’s study.

Quebec rate antipsychotics


Meanwhile in the United States, the National Partnership to Improve Dementia Care in Nursing Homes, a collaborative effort between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and “federal and state agencies, nursing homes, other providers, advocacy groups, and caregivers” is working to improve comprehensive dementia care by:

“Finding new ways to implement practices that enhance the quality of life for people with dementia, protect them from substandard care and promote goal-directed, person-centered care for every nursing home resident.”

It intends to do so by reducing the use of antipsychotic medications while enhancing the use of non-pharmacologic approaches and person-centered dementia care practices. Since it’s launch in 2012, the National Partnership has documented significant reductions in the prevalence of antipsychotic use in long-stay nursing home residents across the United States (i.e. from about 24 percent in 2012 to less than 20 percent in the second quarter of 2015.) The CMS aims to reduce the use of antipsychotic medications in long-stay nursing home residents by 30 percent by the end of 2016.


While these initiatives are heartening, they are long overdue. And the reductions that have been realized represent averages; that means some facilities are still over prescribing at prevalence rates as high as 60 percent. I have seen the devastation and suffering caused by the inappropriate use of antipsychotics to “treat” people who live with dementia. My mother suffered from being inappropriately prescribed risperidone and quetiapine in tandem for four years. It was nothing short of abuse. It broke my heart, and transformed me into a fierce advocate for better care. I hope initiatives like those I’ve described in this piece continue and that they will one day spark a tsunami of change in the way we care for people who live with dementia around the world.

Our elders who live with dementia deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not abused with chemical restraints. Why do physicians continue to prescribe antipsychotics when these drugs have significant risks (death tops the list), and have been proven to be only marginally effective in addressing the behaviours for which they are prescribed? Why do we do things that have been proven dead wrong when they can clearly be righted? How can we stop poor care practices and institute better ones?

The members of AMDA have the answers; it’s long past time to implement them. I call on all LTCF administrators and medical personnel to make it their personal mission to put an end to the inappropriate use of these medications in people who should not be taking them.








#mc_embed_signup{background:#fff; clear:left; font:14px Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif; }
/* Add your own MailChimp form style overrides in your site stylesheet or in this style block.
We recommend moving this block and the preceding CSS link to the HEAD of your HTML file. */

Subscribe to MAS now & get 5 free PDFs & a page of welcome links:

Email Address

Take my short survey on behaviour here.

15 thoughts on “let’s get dead right about dementia and dangerous drugs”

    1. Thanks Mike, and yes, the work that’s been done in the UK is astonishing. Still, from what I read from the UK contributors on LinkedIn, there’s still a long way to go there too.


  1. Instead of taking the route of medication, we need to provide people with dementia with more of the correct stimuli to appeal to and engage their remaining capabilities.

    The CRDL (say Cradle), specially developed to enable communication of a new type for people with dementia, does exactly that.

    Please view our video at:


  2. Why is death considered a bad thing? It’s an end to our family member’s pain and suffering. If I could I’d make euthanasia a viable option for those suffering from alzhiemers and dementia. No one wants to live that way, just being a shell of their former selves. No, I would rather die than live that way and force my family watch me decline, become hostile and not remember anything about anything. No thank you. Death is a relief from the misery in dementia.


    1. Sandra I feel the same way you do about that! I want to have the right to check out if ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In fact it is something I plan on doing if that time arises whether it is legal or not- would be nice to have the help of a physician but I don’t need it either. I want my grandma to go from dementia to death without the use of drugs to manage her Alzheimer’s symptoms tho. They only make it worse & I want her to be her when she goes, not a medicated drooling zombie. She deserves better than that!


    2. I don’t think that death is a bad thing. On the other hand I don’t think we should kill people who don’t want to die. My mom wanted to live, she didn’t want to be sedated with antipsychotic drugs. I think it should be the individual’s choice…


  3. Antipsychotic use will prevail as long as dementia care is solely a means of profitability to owners. Throwing a pill into someone is relatively cheap and easy. Paying to train staff in the use of nonpharmacologic interventions and having enough staff on duty to use those interventions is more expensive and labor intensive. It’s all about the purse strings. I once worked in a nursing home with a large population of people with dementia. The home hired a new Activities Director who was pure dynamite! She had something for people to do all day, every day. In the next quarter’s Quality Improvement meeting, the pharmacy consultant remarked on the dramatic drop in the use of antipsychotic drugs. Well, DUH! Of course it dropped! If you provide activity and meaning, people will experience less confusion and anxiety, leading to fewer “behavioral disturbances” that normally results in medication tx. Treat them like something more than mute animals, and you’ll get a different outcome!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s