Elderly Abuse: Cruel Mental Health Programs


In today’s high-pressure world, tradition is too often replaced by more “modern” means of dealing with the demands of life. For example, while once heavily community-, church- and family-based, today the task of caring for our parents and grandparents routinely falls to organizations such as nursing homes or aged-care centers. There we trust that professionally trained staff will take care of our elders as we would.

Doubtless, 67-year-old Pierre Charbonneau’s wife and family felt this way when he was rushed to a hospital suffering from a severe anxiety attack reportedly related to Alzheimer’s disease. Displaying “acute agitation,” Pierre was prescribed a tranquilizer. Ten days later he was transferred to a nursing home where the drug dosage was doubled, and then tripled three days after that. His wife, Lucette, found him bent over in his wheelchair with his chin touching his chest, unable to walk and capable of swallowing only a few teaspoons of puréed food.

A pharmacist warned Lucette that her husband was possibly suffering irreversible nervous system damage caused by major tranquilizers. The family called the nursing home and requested that the drugs be stopped. It was too late. Mr. Charbonneau’s tongue was permanently paralyzed, a doctor later explained, and he would never regain his ability to swallow. Nine days later, Mr. Charbonneau died. The cause of death was listed as a heart attack.

For those who contemplate how to arrange care for much-loved and aging parents or grandparents, it is vital to know that this tragic story is not an exception in elder care today.

When Wilda Henry took her 83-year-old mother, Cecile, to a nursing home, “she walked in the place as good as you and I could.” Within two weeks, after being prescribed the psychiatric drug Haldol, Cecile began babbling instead of talking, drooling constantly, shaking violently and was unable to control her bowels. The dose, it was later discovered, had been increased to 100 times the recommended amount. A medical doctor determined that Haldol had caused these symptoms as well as permanent liver damage.

The reality of nursing home and aged care center life today is often far from the stylized image of communicative, interactive and interested elderly residents living in an idyllic environment. More often than not, the institutionalized elderly of today appear submissive, quiet, somehow vacant, a sort of lifelessness about them, perhaps blankly staring or deeply introspective and withdrawn. If not by drugs, these conditions can also be brought on by the use of electroconvulsive or shock treatment (ECT) or simply the threat of painful and demeaning restraints.

Rather than this being the failure of nursing hospital and aged care staff generally, this is the legacy of the widespread introduction of psychiatric treatment into the care of the elderly over the last few decades.

Consider the following facts about the “treatments” they receive:

• Tranquilizers, also known as benzodiazepines, can be addictive after 14 days of use.

• In Australia, the elderly are prescribed psychoactive drugs in nursing homes for being “noisy,” “wanting to leave the nursing home” or “pacing.”

• In Canada, between 1995 and March 1996, 428,000 prescriptions for one particular, highly addictive tranquilizer were written, with more than 35 percent of these for patients 65 and older.

• British coroners’ reports showed benzodiazepines as more frequently contributing to unnatural death each year than cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy and all other illegal drugs.

• Antipsychotic drugs such as Zyprexa, Risperdal and Seroquel place the elderly at increased risk of strokes and death and have a “boxed warning” to emphasize the risk.

• Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)—today’s antidepressants—cause suicidal thoughts and behavior. Paxil (paroxetine), for example, is seven times more likely to induce suicide in people taking it than those taking a placebo (sugar pill), according to a Norwegian study.

• In the United States, 65-year-olds receive 360 percent more shock treatment than 64-year-olds because at age 65 government insurance coverage for shock typically takes effect.

Such extensive abuse of the elderly is not the result of medical incompetence. In fact, medical literature clearly cautions against prescribing tranquilizers to the elderly because of the numerous dangerous side effects. Studies show ECT shortens the lives of elderly people significantly. Specific figures are not kept as causes of death are usually listed as heart attacks or other conditions.

The abuse is the result of psychiatry maneuvering itself into an authoritative position over aged care. From there, psychiatry has broadly perpetrated the tragic but lucrative hoax that aging is a mental disorder requiring extensive and expensive psychiatric services.

The end result is that, rather than being cherished and respected, too often our senior citizens suffer the extreme indignity of having their power of mind heartlessly nullified by psychiatric treatments or their lives simply brought to a tragic and premature end.

This report is being presented to expose the harsh reality that such tragedies are repeated quietly and frequently in aged-care facilities all over the world. Such betrayal of the elderly and their loved ones must not be tolerated in a civilized society.


Jan Eastgate
President, Citizens Commission
on Human Rights International