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August 4, 2013

Legislation seeks better monitoring of drug treatments

State Sen. O'Connor Ives files bill in response to treatment of some Alzheimer patients

Sharlene Hemp’s father, a North Andover man, worked in construction all his life. In the 1990s, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but stayed at home, his wife taking care of him.

Eventually, in 2001, Hemp and her mother decided it would be better for both parents if he were admitted to a nursing home. They found one in Andover, Hemp said.

But after just a couple days, his condition deteriorated quickly and drastically. He died about four weeks later of complications from a powerful antipsychotic drug he had been put on without the family’s consent or knowledge, she said.

Three proposals are currently being considered by the state Legislature, including one written by state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, that would require nursing homes to acquire written informed consent from patients, their health care proxies or a legal guardian before administering powerful drugs called psychotropics, which primarily act on the nervous system to alter mood. They are approved to treat psychiatric disorders such as bipolarism and schizophrenia.

They also are sometimes used on patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s, even though the drugs carry a higher risk of death in elderly patients.

While Hemp’s father’s Alzheimer’s had advanced over the years, he still recognized people, even if he couldn’t remember names, could feed and bathe himself with a little direction and could express himself, she said. All that changed shortly after he went to the nursing home.

Soon after he was admitted to the nursing home, he was in a wheelchair, couldn’t talk and couldn’t chew his food. Over three weeks, Hemp said she and her mother were baffled about why her father’s condition worsened so quickly. He lost weight and was frequently wet with urine.

His oxygen levels declined and he was transferred to a hospital, where he soon fell into a coma. Hemp and her daughter-in-law, a clinical director at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, helped push to get his paperwork from the nursing home. In the documents they found he had been put on a powerful antipsychotic shortly after he was admitted when a staff member felt her father was being difficult. The drug was still being administered while he was comatose, Hemp said.

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