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'Reminiscence Rooms' offer alternative to drugs for people living with memory loss

MADISON, Wis. - Every week, more than 179,000 Americans, mostly older and living with dementia, are given antipsychotic drugs without an appropriate diagnosis.

The Madison-based Alzheimer's and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin is fighting against this misuse and abuse.

The group's public policy director Rob Gundermann says nursing homes are overprescribing drugs in order to sedate residents and keep them under control. 

"It's not just to calm them down," Gundermann said. "It's to sedate them, to sedate the patient because they're easier to deal with that way. It's similar to going to an emergency room with a wound and them giving you painkillers. You're not treating the cause of the problem, you're just treating the symptoms."

Antipsychotic drugs were initially developed to treat psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia. The FDA requires manufacturers to label them with the strongest "black box" warning about their potential risks to people with dementia.

The FDA has never approved antipsychotic drugs as safe and effective for treatment of dementia symptoms. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports that around 16 percent of people in U.S. nursing homes are given these drugs without an appropriate diagnosis. In hundreds of facilities, more than 30 percent of residents were given drugs this way.

A Wisconsin "Informed Consent" law passed in 2010 mandates nursing homes let families know before giving out psychiatric drugs, but the Alliance argues drugs are still being abused, and have been for years. His observation is backed by a 157-page report called "They Want Docile: How Nursing Homes in the United States Overmedicate People with Dementia," which estimates that every week in U.S. nursing homes, more than 179,000 people are given antipsychotic drugs without an appropriate diagnosis.

The Alliance is presenting a solution: reminiscence rooms. These areas of nursing homes would take residents back in time to their childhood. The rooms, already used in Great Britain, would be designed to look like the 1940s and 1950s, providing a comforting, familiar environment to ease some of the confusion and anger that inevitably comes with memory loss.

"Memory and music is a really big thing," Gundermann said. "We're looking at merging these things together to put the person back in a happier time for them."

The Alliance is partnering with the U-W's School of Nursing to create these rooms locally. They hope to have them completed by March and implement them by 2019.

Gundermann adds that although many homes call themselves "memory care treatment centers," they're not actually treating residents at all. Rather, they're sedating their patients on a moment-by-moment basis, which he says is not a long-term, responsible solution.

For him, the problem is personal. "When I started this almost 20 years ago, I said I was going to do it for five years," Gundermann reflected. "And at five years, I said I'm going to stick around a little longer, until I felt comfortable living in a nursing home. I don't think that's ever going to happen."

The Social Security Administration says about 1.1 million people aged 65 and over live in around 15,600 nursing facilities across the U.S. in 2017.


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