Advocacy, Antipsychotic drugs, Toward better care

like one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I should have known better than to invite my photographer friend Edith to do a day-in-the-life photoshoot of Mom and I on a Friday.

I had intended for Edith to capture in images the wonderful time Mom had when I brought her to my place for lunch or dinner. I wanted to show how well she was able to function, how she helped me make lunch, how close we were, how capable she was, and how much we enjoyed spending time together.

But Friday was bath day. That meant Mom was more likely to be even more drugged than usual. Why? Because she “resisted” being undressed and put in the noisy whirlpool bath with a sling-like lift that must have frightened her. Sometimes she resisted “violently,” just as 98 per cent of “normal” people would under similar circumstances (per my Short Survey on Behaviour).
Adding fuel to the fire was Betsy,* the nurse who gave the baths; she was as mean as a junkyard dog. I don’t recall ever seeing her smile during my four years of daily visits to Mom’s dementia jail. On several occasions, she mocked Mom right in front of me; in one instance making fun of the fact that Mom had to pull herself along with her feet in the wheelchair to which she eventually became confined. Mom wasn’t the only resident I witnessed being subjected to Betsy’s abuse, and one of the care workers confided in me that she would sooner send her mother to hell than place her in a home that Betsy worked in.

Betsy was close to six feet tall, and solid. Real solid. They called her “the sergeant major.” Mom, on the other hand, was five foot two, osteoporosis having shrunk her a couple of inches in the previous decade. She was in her mid-eighties, living with dementia, and sedated with antipsychotic drugs because some of the staff–the ones who failed to engage her in ways that worked for her–found her challenging.

Mom’s bath time aggression was carefully recorded in the nurses’ notes I got copies of when I launched a legal bid to get control of her care in August 2013.

On April 12, 2013, for example, Betsy wrote:

Then a week later:

Hmmmm. So it wasn’t okay for Mom to call out for help when she felt threatened, and under attack, but it was perfectly fine for Betsy to do so?

I know Mom’s reactions could have been prevented with the right approach; I know it with one hundred per cent certainty. But Betsy either didn’t know the right approach, didn’t have time to use it or didn’t want to use it. Caroline or I helped Mom shower every morning for more than a year, and Mom never hit, slapped, kicked or pinched either of us. Ever. Sometimes she was slightly reluctant, saying she didn’t need a shower (for example), but we always managed to convince her, and the process always unfolded without incident. In fact, mostly it was a pleasant experience for her and for us. But Betsy didn’t use the right approach, and everything went pear shaped as a result.

Of course Mom and dementia were blamed for the “bad bath time behaviour,” and when things got really out of control, they gave her an extra dose of whatever to subdue her. That’s why and how she ended up like this on that failed photoshoot Friday in 2014:

This video of my catatonic mom haunts me. I can’t imagine anyone watching it without being shocked, even horrified. It reminds me of the final scenes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in which Jack Nicholson’s “troublemaker” character Randle McMurphy is made vegetative after being lobotomized. I remember crying when, out of love and compassion, McMurphy’s big native friend (Chief) kills him by smothering him with a pillow. I never dreamed I would one day see the same vacant look in my mother’s eyes.

We don’t lobotomize people anymore–for good reason. As one writer puts it:

“It was a barbarous procedure with catastrophic consequences, and yet it was once widely accepted and even earned a Portuguese doctor a Nobel Prize. In the annals of medical history, it stands out as one of medicine’s biggest mistakes and an example of how disastrously things can go wrong when a treatment is put into widespread use before it has been adequately tested.”

Maybe one day we will also stop giving antipsychotic drugs to people living with dementia for the same undeniable reasons, and they won’t be tortured and abused like my mother was for the last four years of her life.


*not her real name

7 reasons i post “ugly” pictures of my amazing mom on social media

drugs, not dementia, robbed me of my mom and her of her mind

four years later is too late for my mom. but it’s not for others.

101 potential causes of behaviour by people living with dementia that institutional care staff may find challenging

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Take my short survey on behaviour here.