Reading up on all the news, reports and discussions on the aged care royal commission, it makes me wonder if personhood is forgotten in dementia care. Recognition, respect and trust is not rocket science and that’s just common sense. What’s happened to aged care? Why is it that people living with dementia are now being objectified, disrespected and feared in aged care. How did we go so wrong?
Last month the aged care minister Ken Wyatt announced he would introduce regulations to address the use of “chemical restraint” in residential aged care – a practice where residents are given psychotropic drugs which affect their mental state in order to “control” their behaviour.
Psychotropic medications used as “chemical restraints” are antipsychotics, antidepressants, anti-epileptics and benzodiazepines (tranquilisers).
Wyatt followed this announcement this month with a A$4.2 million funding pledge to better monitor care in nursing homes through mandatory “quality indicators”, and including one covering medication management.
Of course, you would be hard pressed to find a staff member admitting to controlling a resident by giving them a tablet. Instead, most staff would stress that medication was given to calm or comfort them.
But our research shows psychotropic use is rife in Australia’s aged care system.
Reforms are desperately needed, but we need to develop the right approach and learn from countries that have tried to regulate this area – most notably the United States and Canada.
What’s the problem with antipsychotic drugs?
Antipsychotic drugs such as risperidone and quetiapine are often used to manage behavioural symptoms of dementia.
But large reviews conclude they don’t work very well. They decrease agitated behaviour in only one in five people with dementia. And there is no evidence they work for other symptoms such as calling out and wandering.
Due to their limited effect – and side effects, including death, stroke and pneumonia – guidelines stress that antipsychotics should only be given to people with dementia when there is severe agitation or aggression associated with a risk of harm, delusions, hallucinations, or pre-existing mental illness.
The guidelines also state antipsychotics should only be given when non-drug strategies such as personalised activities have failed, at the lowest effective dose, and for the shortest period required.
The high rates of antipsychotic use in Australian aged care homes indicates the guidelines aren’t being followed.
In our study of more than 12,000 residents across 150 homes, we found 22% were taking antipsychotics every day. More than one in ten were were charted for these drugs on an “as required” basis.
We also found large variations in use between nursing homes, ranging from 7% to 44% of residents. How can some homes operate with such low rates, whereas others have almost half their residents taking antipsychotic medications?
Regulations to reduce chemical restraint
Of all countries, the US has made the most effort to address high rates of antipsychotic use.
After reports in the 1980s highlighting poor nursing home care, Congress passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act which sets national minimum standards of care, guidelines to assist homes to follow the law, and surveyors to enforce it.
For residents with dementia and behavioural symptoms, the regulations require documentation of the behaviour, a trial of non-drug strategies such as activity programs, and dose reductions after six months.
Homes that don’t meet these regulations are subject to a series of sanctions, ranging from financial penalties to closure.
The regulations were initially associated with substantial declines in antipsychotic use. By 1995 only 16% of residents were taking them.
But average rates of use rose to 26% by 2010. And in 2011, a Senate hearing found 83% of claims for antipsychotics in nursing homes were prescribed for unlicensed use.
This led advocates to conclude the regulations and surveyor guidance were ineffective.
Quality indicators to reduce chemical restraint
Another way to reduce antipsychotic use in aged care homes is by mandatory quality indicators, along with public reporting. The US introduced this in 2012. A similar system was instituted in Ontario, Canada, in 2015.
Measures are essential for quality improvement. But they can also lead to unintended consequences and cheating.
In the US, antipsychotic rates for people with dementia has allegedly reduced by 27% since the start of their quality indicator program.
But those diagnosed with schizophrenia were exempt from reporting. Then the percentage of residents listed as having schizophrenia doubled from 5% to nearly 10% of residents within the first few years of the initiative. So 20% of the reduction was probably due to intentional mis-diagnosis rather than an actual decrease in antipsychotic use.
A recent US study has also shown that the use of alternative sedating medications not subject to reporting, specifically anti-epileptic drugs, has risen substantially as antipsychotic use declined, indicating widespread substitution.
In Ontario, the use of trazadone, a sedating antidepressant, has also markedly increased since its antipsychotic reporting program began.
In the US, nursing homes self-report indicators. A recent study compared nursing home data with actual prescribing claims, concluding that homes under-reported their antipsychotic prescribing, on average, by 1 percentage point.
Public reporting is often also time-consuming, with some researchers arguing that time spent managing quality indicators may be better spent providing care for residents.
Where to now?
Awareness of a problem is the first step to addressing it, and chemical restraint is a key issue coming to light in the aged care royal commission.
The proposed regulations and new quality indicator will allow homes and regulators to monitor the use of chemical restraint, but more importantly, should be used to assess the impact of training and other strategies to ensure appropriate use of psychotropic medications.
But to meet their full potential, these programs need to be carefully designed and evaluated to ensure that cheating, under-reporting and substitution does not occur like it did in North America.
It’s an uncomfortable image to consider: an elderly person – perhaps somebody you know – physically restrained. Maybe an aged care resident deemed likely to fall has been bound to his chair using wrist restraints; or someone with dementia acting aggressively has been confined to her bed by straps and rails. These scenarios remain a reality in Australia.
The Australian government has recently moved to regulate the use of physical and chemical restraints in aged care facilities. This comes ahead of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.
Certainly this is a step in the right direction – but banning physical restraint is unlikely to remove it from practice. If we want to achieve a restraint free approach we need to educate the sector about viable alternatives, which aren’t always pharmacological.
The rate of physical restraint in Australia is difficult to ascertain. One study across five countries examining the care of residents over one week reported between 6% (Switzerland) and 31% (Canada) of residents had been physically restrained.
These figures suggest a substantial, ingrained issue with multiple contributing factors. Issues might include inadequate staff knowledge and skills, insufficient resources, and difficulty accessing specialist services.
While injuries caused directly by physical restraint could include falls and nerve injury, the impacts go beyond this. A significant consequence of restraint is its immobilising effects which can lead to incontinence, cognitive decline and a general deterioration in a person’s physical condition.
In physically restraining residents, staff are failing to employ other evidence‐based interventions. Behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia can be managed by strategies such as improving sleep, controlling pain, music therapy, orientation therapy, and, if required, one-to-one care.
Preventing falls requires a multi-pronged approach including strengthening, balance training, medication review and co-ordination of care between doctors, nurses and therapists.
Physical restraint breaches a person’s human rights and dehumanises older members of our community.
Restraints don’t work
Our recent review of studies into the practice identified 174 deaths of nursing home residents due to physical restraint. The eight studies reviewed came from the US and Europe between 1986 and 2010.
This research reaffirmed the view that restrained individuals still experience falls, which the restraints often seek to prevent. But perhaps most compelling were the findings that physically restraining patients with dementia increases agitation, worsens behavioural and psychological symptoms, and hastens their cognitive decline.
We’ve also undertaken a detailed analysis of resident deaths in Australian nursing homes reported to the coroner between 2000 and 2013. This uncovered only five deaths due to physical restraint. All residents had impaired mobility and the physical restraints had been applied to prevent falls. The residents died from neck compression and entrapment caused by the restraints.
Most would expect the use of physical restraints would be closely monitored, with any harm reported to a regulatory or professional body. This is not necessarily the case in Australia.
Reporting often lags due to an unclear understanding about what constitutes physical restraint, and perhaps because little is forthcoming in the way of alternatives to address these residents’ care needs.
The only systematic voluntary scrutiny that could apply exists in principle, though not largely in practice, via the National Aged Care Quality Indicator Program. Fewer than 10% of aged care providers around the country participate in the quality indicator program, and the results of these audits are yet to be released publicly.
It’s only when a death occurs that a report to an independent authority – the Coroner’s Court – is made.
Similar laws introduced in other countries to ban physical restraint haven’t worked. In the US, there was an initial decrease in use of restraint and then a gradual return to previous levels.
Abolishing the use of physical restraints on nursing home residents remains challenging because of the widespread but incorrect perception that physical restraints improve resident safety. Nursing staff report using physical restraints to guarantee residents’ safety; to control resident behaviour while fulfilling other tasks; or to protect themselves and others from perceived harm or risk of liability.
Changing laws does not change attitudes. Education and training is required to dispel the myths and inform that better options than physical restraint already exist. Otherwise staff, family and the general public will continue with a mistaken belief it is safer to restrain a person than allow them to move freely, or that restraint is necessary to protect other residents or staff.
Our team convened an expert panel to develop recommendations for addressing the issue. We considered three of our 15 recommendations to prevent the use of physical restraint among nursing home residents the most important.
The first is establishing and mandating a single, standard, nationwide definition for describing “physical restraint”. A universal definition of what constitutes physical restraint enables consistent reporting and comparability in nursing homes.
Secondly, when there are no viable alternatives to physical restraint, any use should trigger mandatory referral to a specialist aged care team. This team should review the resident’s care plan and identify strategies that eliminate the use of physical restraint. This requires improved access to health professionals with expertise in dementia and mental health when a nursing home calls for help.
Thirdly, nursing home staff competencies should be appropriate to meet the complex needs of residents, particularly those with dementia. This is the long term solution to eradicate the need to apply physical restraint and is achievable with national education and training programs.
The harm from physical restraint is well documented, as are the potential solutions. Changing the legislation is a necessary step, but will not change practice on its own. Addressing as many of the underlying contributing factors as possible should commence alongside the government’s call for tougher regulations.
Many caregivers in Asia can agree, it’s super hard to find resources and in some countries, it’s hard even to know where to start. When we go online there are so many websites and resources, it’s hard to even know where to start. It’s hard especially when a lot of information tends to be advertisements for private organisations promoting their services. When this post from Monica Cations post popped up on twitter, it was like, wow, what a great idea!
Let’s have one for countries in Asia. The list is below is one for Asia, and if you wish to view the full list of organisations, you can visit https://www.alz.co.uk/associations
If you engage in cognitively stimulating activities in midlife, such as reading and playing games, you can reduce dementia risk by about 26 per cent, according to research. (Unsplash/Rawpixel), CC BY-SA
This number is growing: around 50 million people live with dementia today, and this number will rise to over 130 million worldwide by 2030.
You do not have to wait until you are 65 to take action. In the absence of treatment, we must think of ways to protect our brain health earlier. This month is Alzheimer’s Awareness month — what better time to learn how to reduce your risk of dementia, whatever your age?
There are three dementia risk factors that you can’t do anything about: age, sex and genetics. But a growing body of evidence is discovering early-life, mid-life and late-life contributors to dementia risk that we can do something about — either for our own or our children’s future brain health.
Before going any further, let’s clear up some common confusion between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Dementia is a term to describe the declines in cognitive abilities like memory, attention, language and problem-solving that are severe enough to affect a person’s everyday functioning. Dementia can be caused by a large range of diseases, but the most common is Alzheimer’s.
Poorer nutritional opportunities that often accompany low socioeconomic position can result in cardiovascular and metabolic conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes that are additional risk factors for dementia.
And low education reduces the opportunities to engage in a lifetime of intellectually stimulating occupations and leisure activities throughout life that build richer, more resilient neural networks.
Aerobic activity not only helps us to maintain a healthy weight and keep our blood pressure down, it also promotes the growth of new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, the area of the brain most responsible for forming new memories.
Stay social and eat well in later years
While the influences of socioeconomic position and engagement in cognitive and physical activity remain important dementia risk factors in late life, loneliness and a lack of social support emerge as late life dementia risk factors.
You have heard that you are what you eat, right? It turns out that what we eat is important as a dementia risk factor too. Eating unrefined grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and fish, with low meat consumption — that is, a Mediterranean-style diet — has been linked to lower dementia rates.
Leading an engaged, healthy lifestyle is thought to increase “cognitive reserve” leading to greater brain resiliency such that people can maintain cognitive functioning in later life, despite the potential accumulation of Alzheimer’s pathology.
Thus, although all of these factors may not stop Alzheimer’s disease, they can allow people to live longer in good cognitive health. In my mind, that alone is worth a resolution to lead a healthier, more engaged lifestyle.