More than one-third of Thunder Bay's long-term care residents are being given anti-psychotic drugs — even though they've never been diagnosed with that kind of mental illness.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 34 per cent of residents in long-term care homes in Thunder Bay are on antipsychotic medication — that's higher than the provincial average of 31.5 per cent.

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St. Joseph's Care Group vice-president Meaghan Sharp says staff members at St. Joseph's two long-term care homes try to take residents off antipsychotic drugs whenever possible.

The vice-president of seniors' health at St. Joseph's Health Care said the widespread use of antipsychotic medications is concerning.

"I can't stress enough that this is taken seriously,” Meaghan Sharp said.

Sharp said St. Joe's has cut back its use of these drugs over the past year.

'Doesn't have to be this way'

York University's Dr. Joel Lexchin said antipsychotic drugs put long-term care residents at higher risk of falling or having a stroke, but the medications are still used because of inadequate resources.

"We don't have enough staff, sometimes staff [members] aren't properly trained,” he said.

Joel Lexchin

York University's Dr. Joel Lexchin says antipsychotic drugs put long-term care residents at higher risk of falling or having a stroke. (York University)

“So what we do instead is we ... medicate these people to make them less demanding, in effect."

Lexchin added antipsychotic drugs have never been approved to treat dementia. Studies show people on these drugs end up in hospital more often than those who don’t take them, he said.

Sharp said antipsychotic medication should only be used as a last resort.

She said St. Joseph's tries to deal with dementia-related problems — like aggression — by tailoring care to each person's specific needs.  But to do that, nursing home staff need time and training.

Lexchin said long-term care providers should use behavioural measures to deal with dementia, before resorting to drugs.  

“It doesn't have to be this way,” he said. “There are homes across the country where the use is much lower than one-third ... It's not impossible to change things.”

Staff members at St. Joseph's two long-term care homes closely monitor what medications residents are on and why, Sharp said, and they actively try to take residents off antipsychotic meds whenever possible.