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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.


From The Boston Globe at

Marjorie Bontempo was a changed woman after moving into Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley, a Littleton nursing home where the staff doesn’t believe in using antipsychotic drugs simply to calm residents.

A physician had prescribed an antipsychotic for Bontempo a year earlier, after Alzheimer’s disease had transformed her from an accomplished seamstress and demure family peacekeeper into a cantankerous, confused woman who refused to eat. The medicine eased her aggression but left her dazed, said her daughter, Patty Sinnett.
Nashoba’s nurses took Bontempo off the powerful sedative. Sinnett went to visit soon after and found her mother in the activity room watching a Clark Gable movie.
“She started explaining the whole movie to me, like a normal person would,’’ Sinnett said. “It was the first time I had had a conversation with her in a year. It was incredible.’’
The Littleton facility is one of a small but growing number of nursing homes that are treating the agitation and disruptive behavior that often accompany dementia without resorting to antipsychotics.
Instead, Life Care Center and similar homes try to tailor care to each resident, to make it familiar and comforting. Staffers comb residents’ pasts to learn their preferences, hobbies, and accomplishments, tapping bedrock emotions that endure long after memory fades.
The Globe reported Sunday that many homes still rely heavily on antipsychotics to deal with aggressive residents, though most of these residents do not have conditions that nursing home regulators say warrant use of the drugs. And federal authorities have warned of sometimes lethal side effects when antipsychotics are taken by elderly dementia patients.
Industry leaders say that the drugs must be used at times to protect residents and staff, and that many of the nondrug approaches being tried require specialized training that far too few nursing home workers have received, and often more staffing.
They note that drug regulators have not approved any medications specifically to manage the difficult behaviors exhibited by residents with dementia, and that physicians are allowed to prescribe antipsychotics “off-label’’ for conditions other than what they were designed for: serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
Overall use of the drugs in nursing home patients without mental illnesses has declined since 2005, according to the Globe’s analysis of federal data. The numbers show that Nashoba drove down its use of antipsychotics from six years ago, when nearly a quarter of residents without illnesses warranting antipsychotic use received them anyway. In 2010, that number was zero.
The linchpin was a new director of nursing, Nancy LaRock, who scoured each patient’s files and discovered that roughly 30 of the home’s 120 residents were on antipsychotics. Easily half of them didn’t have a condition that would warrant the medications.
LaRock, who had a background in psychiatric care, started weaning residents off the medications and training staff about alternative strategies.
“One of the biggest challenges was from families,’’ she said. “I got some push-back from families who wanted mom to have this drug because she was so much easier to be with,’’ LaRock said. “As far as I’m concerned, the antipsychotic masks who that person really is.’’
From the circular layout of its Alzheimer’s unit - so residents don’t encounter a dead-end in a hallway, a potential source of stress for those who wander - to the goats and llamas grazing in its pastoral front yard, Nashoba stands out.
Executive director Ellen Levinson, whose two golden retrievers often greet visitors at the front door, said she has found that animals have a calming effect. The walls of the 27-bed Alzheimer’s unit are lined with animal pictures, and bird feeders hang from nearly every window.
A caretaker sometimes leads the llamas through the halls and into the Alzheimer’s unit, where even residents who relentlessly wander stop to pet the regal creatures.
Activities and care are matched to residents’ individual personalities and abilities.
For 88-year-old Richard Pinkham, a former electrician, staffers assembled a “tool box’’ full of paint brushes, measuring tapes, and other gadgets so he can still dabble.
They found that Bontempo, who wasn’t eating when she first arrived in 2010, loves hot chocolate - any time of day, any time of year. Now they bring her a cup at the start of every meal, which jump-starts her appetite. And she is rarely aggressive.
“Margie really enjoyed dancing, so we try to talk to her about that,’’ said Erica Labb, program director of Nashoba’s dementia care unit. “It is often trial and error and we just keep trying new things until we find the right combo.’’
Many of the residents are no longer able to speak, so their behaviors - tears, screams, slapping, smiles - are how they communicate.
“If someone is combative during a shower, it may be that she is afraid, so we may start with just her feet,’’ Labb said.
Staffers ask family members detailed questions about a resident’s personality before Alzheimer’s set in: the time of day they preferred bathing, favorite foods, hobbies, cherished accomplishments.

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