As many as 71 percent of nursing home residents who are receiving Medicaid are also taking a psychoactive medication, according to one University of South Florida study. While these drugs can serve a very real purpose in treating certain medical conditions, they can also be misused and/or lead to dangerous interactions with other drugs. Let's take a closer look at psychoactive medications, along with what caregivers need to know to help safeguard the health and wellness of aging loved ones.
Psychoactive meds can be useful when purposefully prescribed.
What Are Psychoactive Drugs?
Also known as psychotropic drugs, psychoactive drugs are any type of medication which impacts the mind, emotions and behavior. How do they work? Through a chemical reaction in the nervous system with the ability to alter brain function. To do so, they must cross the blood-brain barrier, a filter which otherwise blocks substances from penetrating the brain.
While illicit recreational drugs may initially come to mind when you hear the words "psychoactive drugs," many are legal, and can be used to treat a multitude of maladies, including sleep disorders, chronic pain, and many mental and emotional disorders, such as anxiety, clinical depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Not all psychoactive medications are the same. Rather, they fall into four primary categories:
- Benzodiazepines (including sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics)
- Mood stabilizers
Each of these works differently depending on their composition, doses, and the sensitivity of the user, but they do share something in common: While some, but not all, are habit-forming, all can lead to psychological dependence over time -- a particular problem in long-term care where they're often over-prescribed.
The Role of the Physician, Family and Caregivers
When prescribed by a physician and used prudently, psychoactive medications can vastly improve quality of life. Many people safely and effectively use these drugs to manage stress, sleeplessness, and other otherwise debilitating concerns.
However, when taken unnecessarily, to excess, or in combination with other psychoactive medications, the results can be dangerous and even potentially deadly. This is why it's critical to only take psychoactive drugs under the advisement of a physician with an understanding of a patient's complete medical history.
While the government has enacted a safety net by requiring mental health assessments along with the use of non-pharmacological treatments, many nursing homes fall far short. In these cases, the simplest, most intermediate intervention may be the administration of a psychoactive drug -- whether or not it's actually needed. The result? The medication becomes a restraint as opposed to a true treatment.
Because of this, experts advise family members and caregivers to be on the lookout for hallucinations and other signs of confusion after drug regimen changes in long-term care situations. Additionally, understanding why drugs are prescribed is an essential part of the process. The more families and caregivers are involved in resident need planning -- both pertaining to the use of psychotropic drugs and comprehensive care -- the better positioned they'll be to act as true advocates for the individuals in their care.
Changes in lucidity can indicate overuse or misuse of psychoactive drugs.If you're looking for a comprehensive resource for family caregivers, check out our online Family Caregiver Guide.
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