As a psychiatrist, I get questioned about the medications I prescribe all the time. People often Google and research the medication I give them. What they find might really worry them.
First of all, doing your research and asking questions about your medication is an excellent practice, once you use a reputable website such as www.mayoclinic.org or www.alzheimers.co.uk. It is important to know what a drug is being prescribed for, what the side effects are, if there are any risks, and how long you should take the medication for.
It's easy to think that drugs prescribed by a psychiatrist that effect your brain can be more dangerous than drugs perscribed by another specialist or GP. But this is not true. Some GP's prescribe psychiatric drugs. Other doctors might not properly explain what they are prescribing or why. It is up to you to make sure that you ask the right questions before you leave their office. Taking too many medications at the same time can be dangerous, unnecessary and expensive. So make sure that you and your doctor agree that each and every medication prescribed is absolutely necessary.
It is important to know what a drug is being prescribed for, what the side effects are, if there are any risks, and how long you should take the medication for.
But just because a medication is necesary does not mean that it will be perfect. So you need to look at the benefits over the risks and understand that it might be the best decision for you or your loved one, despite what you might find in your research,
For example, Antipsychotics have been shown to increase the risk of many things in people with Dementia including stroke, pneumonia, falls, sedation and death in extreme cases. Sounds terrifying, I know. But as a psychiatrist, it is my job to find the best and safest antipsychotic to treat extreme agitation and agression in persons with Dementia. In many cases I choose a drug named Risperdal because it works well and is specifically santctioned to help people with dementia.
Whenever I have Dementia patients with aggression or agitation, I recommend other tactics first, such as paying attention to any physical health problems that may be causing their agitation. Apart from this, the person's environment should be calm, peaceful, comfortable and cool. Most importantly, they should be receiving good nursing care. This is a real challenge in the Caribbean because many of the nurses or caregivers have very limited experience or training with Dementia patients. But in my opinion, when it comes to Dementia, having an excellent nurse is far better than any medication.
Whenever I have Dementia patients with aggression or agitation, I recommend other tactics first, such as paying attention to any physical health problems that may be causing their agitation...and the person's environment.
But the reality is that often I get calls from families saying that they simply cannot cope. Often times, local Nursing Homes threaten to throw Dementia patients out if their aggressive behaviour cannot be controlled. This is not pleasant, but this is what happens. So when the agitation is severe enough, I take on the risk of prescribing low doses of Risperdal (0.5mg to 1 mg daily) which in my experience helps with aggression and agitation, but are unlikely to cause harm at such a low dose. (The maximum dose of Risperdal is 16mg, or 32 times the dose I prescribe).
So in the end, sometimes antipsychotics, although dangerous in large doses, can be safely given to persons with Dementia who absolutely need it. But first, be sure to talk to your doctor, try to improve your loved one's behaviour by attending to their physical needs and environment and ask your doctor for the lowest possible dose to start off with in order to decrease the risks of the medication.
Remember- these guidelines apply to any medication for any condition- not just dementia. For our T&T clients, Age Caribbean will be hosting a seminar on Medication Management in January 2017. Check our Seminars page to learn more and keep educating yourself about elder care.
Dr James Bratt, Lead Consultant at Age Caribbean and Geriatric Psychicatrist.