Psychiatric Care Lacking For Institutionalised Seniors

Don Weitz wears a T-shirt bluntly saying, “Fry rice – not brains.”

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), November 1992

Seniors who live in nursing homes and homes for the aged are receiving an inadequate amount of psychiatric care, according to a study conducted by Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. 

Dr. David Conn, director of psychiatry at Baycrest and an author of the report, says action must be taken to remedy this situation, since at least 80 per cent of elderly long-term care residents suffer from some form of mental disorder. 

The issue of psychiatric care for seniors is complex. There are many, often strongly-held, opinions about the nature of this care and what measures will genuinely improve the mental well-being of seniors in institutions. 

According to The Senior Citizens’ Consumer Alliance for Long-Care Reform, Ontario has the highest rate of institutionalisation of seniors in the world, with 7.5 per cent of seniors over the age of 65 and 15 per cent over 75 in institutions. The Alliance demanded in its reforms in Ontario that seniors’ mental health problems be taken more seriously and be included in any assessment for care. 

Baycrest’s report surveyed 1,148 medical directors and nursing directors in over 500 nursing homes and homes for the aged across Ontario. The 601 who responded reported that 37 per cent of their residents received no psychiatric care, while only 12 per cent received more than five hours per month. The most common psychiatric problems under treatment were depression, agitation, wandering and physical aggression. 

“Recognition of significant mental disorders in nursing homes is a recent phenomenon because geriatric psychiatry is a relatively new field,” says Dr. Conn. “The usual approach has been to reach for the prescription pad. We know now that antidepressants have been underused and tranquillizers overused.

“To deliver effective psychiatric care requires more than just psychiatrists – teams of psychiatric nurses can also be involved. Hopefully the staff of these institutions will become better educated as a result of this report.”

Dr. Kenneth Shulman, head of psychiatry at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, feels the worst neglect occurs in private rest homes. 

“There is general lack of accountability when it comes to geriatric psychiatric services.” Schulman advocates a coordinated, comprehensive regional network of services. 

Dr. Conn is sensitive to reports of sexual, physical and mental abuse of residents in some institutions. He says staff as well as residents of institutions can benefit from psychiatric consultations. “If more psychiatric consultants were available, the staff could also receive help in working out their problems,” he says. “Unfortunately the fee-for-service system doesn’t include paying for visiting staff.

“Being in an institution is not easy for anyone. It often means being apart from family, living with strangers, loss of freedom and having to live by the institution’s timetable.”

One of the most controversial of psychiatric treatments is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT involves placing electrodes on the sedated patient’s head and passing 100 to 175 volts of electricity into one of the lobes of the brain to induce grand mal seizure and coma. 

Opponents of ECT say the procedure can cause memory loss and confusion, and in some cases proves fatal. A 1985 Ontario government task force report recommended against using ECT in certain cases: “For patients whose work requires a clear and precise memory, ECT is probably contraindicated.”

But many other sources say that while ECT has been abused in the past and, like many other medical procedures, may not be a pretty sight, it is sometimes effective in combating depression. 

Dr. Conn confirms that the controversial procedure is still being used on seniors. “ECT is used on very depressed people,” he says. “It is a hospital-based service. The patient is admitted to a psychiatric unit of the hospital. We do it at Baycrest. It is only a last resort and has often been life-saving.”

Don Weitz, a senior citizen and spokesperson for Resistance Against Psychiatry, doesn’t mince words about what he says is the adverse effects of electroshock therapy and psychiatric practice in general. He wears a T-shirt bluntly saying, “Fry rice – not brains.”

“We have known about the adverse effects of shock for years,” says Weitz. “Research from the ‘40s and ‘50s was very clear that there was brain damage.

“What doctors mean by improvement is in fact post-injury euphoria – the brain will overcompensate with giddiness, and this only lasts for two to four weeks. Doctors seldom test people for more than two or three months afterwards.”

“What we know for sure is that within the institutions, they would rather give drugs or shock than talk to seniors. I think this should be called elder abuse – what else could it be? Is it such a mystery why people are depressed in institutions where they are abused? Psychiatrists have a vested interest in billing OHIP for pushing the button.”

But Dr. Shulman disagrees with blaming the atmosphere of institutions. “It is simplistic to think that the environment is responsible for aggressiveness or other problems,” he says. “These people are cognitively impaired – it could be medication-related or something else. These are complicated issues.”

For any nursing home workers who want further advice about psychiatry, Baycrest has produced a “Jargon-free” guide called Practical Psychiatry in the Nursing Home.